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Pinned post: The evolving art of brooches

The coolest thing about working at an auction house is getting to lay eyes on and learn about unique works of art – and, in this case, jewellery. While researching for the catalogue, I became interested in the development of the brooch through history, and even recommended a book for our library on the subject. Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Saffronart blog exploring the evolution of these versatile accessories, shaped by fashion, artistry, technology, and even significant events.

Image courtesy of Saffronart

A brooch is a powerful object. Within the confines of a relatively small composition, it is a complete work of art. 

– Lori Ettlinger Gross 

One of the earliest forms of jewellery, brooches began as simple utilitarian pins to hold garments together, worn by both men and women. The evolution and elevation of the brooch into an accessory and ornament closely mirrored the sociopolitical and economic contexts of each decade. “They have been both formal and narrative, spare and ornate, made of diamonds, iron or diamonds and iron – probably every technique and material ever embraced by jewelers.” (Marthe Le Van ed., 500 Brooches: Inspiring Adornments for the Body, New York: Lark Books, 2005, p. 6)

First there was flint and the fibula 

Etymologically, the word “brooch” originates from the French word “broche,” meaning a long needle. Often used interchangeably with the word “pin,” arising from the old English “pinn” (a peg or bolt), these range from simple, practical pieces to intricately embellished ones. 

The earliest pins were pieces of fine flint, used in the Neolithic Age to hold together animal skins worn as clothing and cloaks. Evidence of a “dress-pin” – a form of jewellery since it contained decorative or sculptural elements, or even gems – was found as early as 2500 BC in Ur, Iraq. 

Metal pins first appeared in the Bronze age, called fibulae, made of metal wire that was twisted into various shapes and forms. They gradually became more decorative and visible, used to fasten cloaks and scarves. In the 13th century, ring-shaped brooches were often worn close to the neckline, and carried personal inscriptions.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, jewellery began to be associated with status, and accordingly, pins featured precious metals, gemstones, carvings and more intricate designs. Aglets, small bejewelled items especially favoured by Queen Elizabeth I; and aigrettes, plume-like brooches worn in the hair, sometimes containing real feathers, were some of the types and variations of brooches popular during this period.

Brooch designs were often dictated by wider social and even scientific events. Diamond-encrusted sunbursts, stars, crescents and other celestial motifs became especially popular after the appearance of Halley’s Comet, and remained in vogue from the 18th to the early 20th century. Black mourning pins, representing bereavement and sometimes including hair, tortoise shells, ivory, onyx and lava, were increasingly worn after Queen Victoria made it an essential part of her everyday attire in 1861, when she lost her husband Prince Albert.

Image courtesy of Saffronart

Mirroring nature  

The Victorian era was dominated by Naturalism in art, reflected in brooch designs primarily inspired by nature, featuring accurate renditions of flowers, birds and insects. Ornate, delicate designs, including feminine motifs such as bows and ribbons, continued until the early 1900s. 

In India, craftsmen altered these motifs and techniques, drawing on “a strong indigenous tradition” which “metamorphosed into a new style by 1851, often depicting roses, hearts and crosses.” (Nick Barnard, Indian Jewellery: The V&A Collection, London: V&A Publishing, 2008, p. 80)

Read the complete article here.