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Has the Peace Sign Sold Out Its Meaning?

I remember drawing them on my notebook during the first Gulf War and not really knowing what they meant — and now the peace sign is turning the big 5-0. The famous symbol made its first official public appearance in 1958 to advocate nuclear disarmament, and has since been used to graphically support a range of efforts from economic justice to environmentalism. Nearly every altruistic group has used this iconic logo as a way to communicate the idea of universal brotherhood.

The designer of the symbol, Gerald Holtom, created the logo while in a big funk. He explains the symbol: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards . . .” (I never saw that until I read this, but now it makes sense!) Holtom died in 1985, and some say if he had lived this long, he might really understand the true meaning of the word “despair."

How has a simple symbol morphed from a cry for help to a price tag? To see how,


In a time of conflict and relative prosperity, like many things the peace sign has become a commodity. For those with some bucks to blow advertising their quest for peace, Tiffany is hawking a platinum and diamond peace symbol pendant to celebrate the symbol's creation. The pendant holds 4.8 carats of round-cut diamonds and costs $4,000. It makes one wonder what kind of good that money could do someone whose life was really torn by war. Tiffany isn't the only company using what could be the world’s most recognizable cry for understanding to make a profit. The peace sign has adorned everything from Fendi bags to Volkswagen cards and Ed Hardy t-shirts.

Of course, there are those who cry "poppycock!" After all, it’s just a symbol (and one free from copyright protection), and is free to be interpreted by anyone, from a clothing designer, jeweler, or a car manufacturer. Plus, won’t more exposure of the “brand” give it even more power? Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney’s British, thinks so:

Sure, it’s probably not what the hippies had in mind, for it to become a marketing campaign for a department store. But it’s a symbol of the mainstream of counter-culture ideas, of things that were part of the alternative lifestyle — like environmentalism, and organic food. Isn’t that ultimately what the hippies would have wanted?

Perhaps, though the worry remains that the only power the symbol is going to gain is purchasing power. Is the peace sign on the verge of being played out? Does a peace sign done in $4,000 worth of diamonds still mean the same thing?


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