It can be ruthless. Stressful. Exhausting. You hop from venue to venue, enduring days of non-stop haggling, hitting up late-night VIP parties to track down that last elusive pin for your set. But when you get it, and strut around town with the studded lapel of a decorated general, that’s when it’s exhilarating.
Pin trading is the Arctic Winter Games’ 16th sport, running elbow-to-elbow with hockey and the high kick. Janet Pacey, a Yellowknife designer and illustrator, has been trading AWG pins for more than a decade and she has the crammed, anvil-heavy suitcase to prove it. Inside are bags and books loaded with cloisonné metal pins—a super-rare set of tiny polar bears from Yamal, Russia; puzzle piece pins that combine to make up a walrus or floatplane. She separates her pins into keepers and traders—duplicate sets or less appealing pins that she can use to barter for items she lacks.
Pacey wasn’t hooked right away. She first encountered pin trading in 2000, when she was working for the CBC and had to design some pins for the Whitehorse games. “I was like, ‘Well this is stupid. Come on, people really do this?’” It wasn't until she travelled to the Wood Buffalo games in 2004 and was swarmed at her booth, exchanging CBC pins for ornate items from Greenland and Russia and Alaska, that it all clicked. “By day two, I’m just addicted.”
She’s now part of a network of serious collectors who will travel to Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Nuuk—wherever the games are held—just to trade pins. This group includes a retired Northern Alberta farmer and an Alaskan museum curator. “It took me a while to get in there because those guys are old-school,” she says. “It’s funny. I don’t even stay in touch with my family as well as I do with these guys.” Pacey’s made ins with some AWG brass, giving her access to some of the more difficult-to-find pins, and she’s even designed her own pins—including CBC and host society sets. But unlike, say, baseball card collecting, in this economy money shouldn’t ever enter into a deal—even for the most obscure items. Pacey’s been offered $100 for a pin before, but turned it down.
That’s because there’s something special about the trading, like how it overcomes language barriers. (Though, it’s a negotiation tactic too—like the coy Russian kid who feigned his inability to speak English during a trade, when Pacey heard him speaking it only moments earlier.) “It’s amazing the transformation you get from these kids,” she says. “Some of them are so shy, but they think the pins are so pretty, and they transform into these wheeler-and-dealer kids.”
Pacey won’t be making the trip to Greenland for this year’s games. But she’s found others to do her bidding for her. Like a young basketball player she recently met. “She’s going to trade for me. And she thinks I’m completely mental.”
Check out Pacey's five tips for pin-trading at the AWGs here.