Nicola here, talking about brooches. Although I love sparkly jewelry, mainly rings and earrings, I’ve never worn brooches very much. Maybe I associated brooches with my grandmother in the same way that I thought of scarves and lavender, both of which I’ve come around to appreciating over the years. I’ve a number of brooches in my drawer but they don’t see the light of day very often. Well, that’s about to change.
Last year in the UK, Lady Hale, the president of the supreme court caused a sensation in several ways, with her ruling on the prorogation of parliament but also because of the enormous spider brooch that she was wearing at the time. This caused a fashion phenomenon and the sale of spider brooches soared whilst brooches in general became a hot trend. It turns out that Lady Hale has quite a selection of over-sized brooches, including an emerald green frog, a centipede, a beetle and a fox.
Looking at the history of brooches, it makes sense that the first ones were utilitarian rather than decorative, made of thorns or flint and used to secure clothing in place. The use of metal pins can be traced back to the Bronze Age. Given that a love of adornment is as old as human nature though, it wasn’t long before the brooch turned into something more than simply a way of holding your clothes together. Early brooches were often big, made of bronze or silver, in order to secure heavy wool but they were also ornamental, saying a great deal about the wearer’s social and economic status. They could be extremely valuable possessions and as such would be buried with their owner.
Both the Celts and the Vikings produced highly ornate brooches as part of their culture and these designs are still very popular today. Not only were these early brooches all about status but they were also an expression of skill on the part of the goldsmith or other metal worker. The intricate geometric patterns, animal shapes, coiling snakes and other designs could also have religious connotations. Viking brooches have been found with designs such as Thor’s hammer on them. Early medieval jewellery like this was often inset with precious gems such as amber and emerald and even now when it’s discovered in treasure hoards it is stunning.
I’ve read a bit about how Queen Elizabeth I used brooches and other jewellery as statement items with loads of symbolism attached – as well as pearls symbolising chastity she favoured the serpent to denote wisdom. A particularly fascinating brooch belonged to Queen Catherine Parr. It was made for her by her favourite goldsmith and is described thus:
‘a flower with a crown, garnished with xv small diamonds and in the midst of the flower is a ruby with two diamonds and one emerald, and the three pearls pendant.’
By the time Anne of Denmark inherited the brooch in 1606, two of the diamonds were missing and it was sent away to be repaired.
When I was reading up about the history of brooches I came across “the Grand Tour brooch” which was a concept I hadn’t heard of before. In addition to bringing back illegally-and-other acquired antiquities, young gentlemen would return from their travels in Europe with souvenir brooches that reflected their cultural sophistication. This reminded me of the costumed dolls my grandfather would bring back for me from his travels abroad! Whilst travelling through Venice and Florence and Rome, tourists would buy little jewelled brooches that featured Roman architecture or classical designs of flowers, birds or animals. The brooches were generally made of mosaic inlay with semi-precious stones or glass.
Am I the only one who finds eye miniatures slightly creepy? They became fashionable in the late 18th century when George, Prince of Wales, wanted to send Maria Herbert a love token and in order to be discreet (which sounds unlikely for George) sent a painting of his eye so that no one would recognise who it was when she wore it. The eye miniature became so popular and fashionable that it started to appear on rings, snuffboxes and other jewellery, sometimes accompanied by a lock of hair as an extra symbol of love.
The mourning brooch, which had been a symbol of commemoration for centuries, also gained more popularity in the Victorian era following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Often, they were distributed to family and friends under the terms of a will. They depicted scenes of sorrow in sepia tones, with seed pearls incorporated to represent tears. Again, preserving a lock of the loved one’s hair within the brooch was particularly popular. During Queen Victoria’s mourning, woven hair brooches combined with black jet jewellery were very fashionable. Cameo brooches, which originated in 3rd century Rome, also made a comeback in the Victorian era and remained popular into the 20th century. I inherited a couple from my grandmother and love their elegance.
Finally, as we approach Valentine’s Day, it’s important to mention sweetheart brooches. These could feature miniatures of your romantic partner and were adorned with crescent moons, stars, butterflies, animals, birds and flowers. The most popular jewels for decorating a sweetheart brooch were opals, pearls and rhinestones for fidelity. These brooches became very popular at the start of the First World War when departing soldiers would give them to their loved ones as a token.
These days costume jewellery brooches are on trend and we come back to Lady Hale and her spider brooch. Larger-than-life jewellery is all the rage, which leads to my question: Are you a fan of brooches (gentlemen, even if you haven’t completed the Grand Tour, this is one for you too) and if so, what would be your brooch design of choice?