“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)
Our upcoming online auction, Fine Jewels: Ode to Nature, on 15 – 16 October 2019 features a dazzling selection of jewelled brooches. We explore the evolution of these versatile accessories, shaped by fashion, artistry, technology, and even significant events.
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.
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)
Through Two World Wars
After the First World War, there was a shift to more geometric, strong and streamlined Art Deco designs. An article in the Hong Kong Tatler explains that “what women were wearing impacted the way brooches were worn at any given time in history. But the social and historical context matters too. If you look back to the history, women were actually becoming more powerful in society and in politics. Even jewellery reflects this social development, and designs became stronger and a little bit more masculine.”
The production of jewellery was limited during the Second World War due to economic constraints and a lack of resources, but brooch designs in the Post-War period saw a resurgence in the form of a diamond cascade, featuring a flexible joint that allowed freedom of movement. Nature motifs continued to remain a constant, with whimsical interpretations and bolder colours; and well-established designs from earlier periods were repeated. Materials and cultural elements – such as coloured stones, gold settings and motifs from the Middle East – came into the spotlight in turn, indicating wider economic and political shifts globally.
Lighter than Air
Contemporary brooches continue to experiment with design, style and materials. They are often created with lighter, unconventional metals such as titanium and wood, which can be worn on textiles such as silk, satin and chiffon. New gem-cutting technologies, such as lasers and pavé settings, contribute to highly refined designs, ensuring that “the pin [as an accessory] has always been able to complement ever-changing clothing trends without losing its relevance.” (Lori Ettlinger Gross, Brooches: Timeless Adornment, New York: Rizzoli, 2008, p. 17) Increasingly flexible and functional, brooches accentuate and add significance to any outfit. In the words of Ruth Krauss, “Pins never unfit you / you can wear them your whole life.”
Saffronart’s online auction Fine Jewels: Ode to Nature will take place on saffronart.com on 15 – 16 October 2019. The auction is preceded by viewings at the Saffronart gallery in Mumbai through 16 October (excluding 11 – 12 October).
Cover image: A selection of jewellery from Saffronart’s upcoming auction, featuring lots 28, 166, 167, 170 and 172.