Perhaps the oldest and most storied piece of decorative jewelry is the ornamental brooch. Traditionally worn on the lapel over the left breast, brooches have recently seen a new wave of popularity as a fashion statement reflecting one’s true personal style. These versatile pieces are often vintage, but high-end jewelry designers now include them in their important collections.
Brooches are worn by men and women on jackets or shirts, to fasten a scarf or shawl, in their hair, around their neck on a chain, or as the centerpiece of a bracelet. They are pieces of art, vintage trophies, iconic Art Deco statements, and revolutionary new designs. Whether fashion or fine jewelry, brooches have made a comeback and are a great accessory of distinction.
The word brooch derives from the old French word broche, which means long needle or pointed instrument. Historically, these decorative pieces were not jewelry but were more functional, serving as long pins often made from flint or thorns to clasp clothing together. The evolution of the design, originally primitive, changed over ensuing decades as craftsmen became more skilled, opulent status symbols were adopted, and fashion trends were followed.
In the Georgian era (1714-1837), British jewelry design was influenced by the Baroque style with heavy, ornate, intricate metalwork. In 1750, with the emergence of the Rococo period, styles became lighter and more open. Enameling with glass overlays and en tremblant brooch settings were introduced. Brooch motifs such as crescents, ribbons, bows, feather plumes, and sprays of foliage were popularized.
In the Victorian era, jewelry design started to include dramatic figures such as snakes and serpents encrusted with heavy and ornate dark ornaments. With the Romantic Movement came knots and tassels, hearts, arrows, buckles, and vines appearing on brooches with ornate repoussé metal work. Stones typically set in brooches were black onyx, amethyst, garnet, turquoise, topaz, rubies, pearls, and gold. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, died in 1861, sentimental “mourning brooches” featuring a strand or braid of hair from the deceased were favored. In the beginning of the 1900s, cameo brooches had a resurgence and became prevalent with a wider audience.
In 1936, King Edward VIII, a very sophisticated trendsetter who loved fashion and jewelry, came to the throne. While his brief reign lasted only 326 days due to his relationship with divorcee Wallis Simpson, he had a profound influence on jewelry for decades to come. Edward loved designing jewelry for the duchess and spent hours on the Place Vendôme in Paris overseeing details himself with luxury jewelry designers such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Harry Winston. Brooches were one of Wallis’ favorite jewelry styles, and Edward was way ahead of his time mixing precious and semi-precious stones in a menagerie of animal brooches, such as tigers, flamingos, and panthers. These particular brooches were forerunners to many copies still made today.
Queen Elizabeth II’s ascent to the throne in 1952 further escalated the brooch appeal. She popularized the ornamental design with her collection of more than 100 brooches, greatly influencing admirers throughout the world. Embracing the naturalism movement, the brooches worn by Queen Elizabeth often feature butterflies, insects, and flowers. One of her first significant pieces was the Sapphire Chrysanthemum Brooch, which she received in 1946 when she was still a princess. The next year, the beautiful Dorset Bow Brooch, a family heirloom made of diamonds set in gold, was a wedding gift from her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth will forever be remembered for making the brooch a signature piece and symbol of refinement.
Types of Brooches
Cameo: The most traditional brooch is a low relief carving called a cameo. They are often images of figures or scenes from Roman history or Greek mythology. Vintage cameo brooches are also seen as miniature antique portraiture.
Bar: Many different lengths, the bar brooch can be plain or encrusted with gems. It is usually pinned at the base of a collar or along the bodice of a gown.
Jabot Pin: A brooch that is in a long shape with two decorative ornaments. The lower side is detachable.
Pendant: Versatile pieces of jewelry, designed to be easily transformed from brooch to necklace with a concealed bale. The pin is usually hidden behind the design.
Foliate: Brooches originally decorated with leaves or floral motifs, often worn to signify love and friendship.
En tremblant: This unusual style allows part of the brooch design to move with the wearer. French term meaning “to tremble.”
Animal: Jewelry designers such as David Webb, Cartier, and Tiffany harnessed an interest in diverse animals for brooches. Lions, tigers, and snakes are a few.