Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Tracing the evolution of jewelled brooches 

Realised in priceless gems or faux diamanté, the options are endless when it come to brooches, with many designs following fashion’s current obsession with nostalgia

Arctic brooch by Boucheron
Arctic brooch by Boucheron

Think of brooches, and you’ll probably conjure up images of shiny baubles, heavy with gold, glistening on aristocratic necks. Or perhaps granny wearing something bright and cheerful that snags on the wool of her twinset.

As one of the oldest forms of adornment, the brooch began life simply as a way of securing clothing in place. Only over time did it become a convenient surface for decoration and, subsequently, a fashionable accessory. The very earliest brooches are believed to have been made from bone, while the oldest surviving pieces hail from the Bronze Age, as metal was not only durable, but also allowed for increasingly complex carving. Brooches by the Irish and Scottish Celts, from around this time, are considered among the finest examples in the world.

By the 1500s, brooches had become more decorative than functional in Europe, and were lavished with cabochon-cut gems and pearls, and worn on necklines or on hats. The 17th century saw the invention of updated gem-cutting techniques, with new facets making jewels seem brighter and more vivid. This led to a surge in jewellery wearing, as the wealthy rushed to join in this glittering age. Aigrette brooches, made in delicate filigree, using bird, floral or wheat motifs, were covered in stones (usually garnets) and worn in the hair, while en tremblant brooches (a French term meaning to tremble) were particularly en vogue, with fragile sprays of diamonds crafted to gently move and shimmer to better catch the candlelight.

Vintage photograph of a Boucheron brooch
Vintage photograph of a Boucheron brooch

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the brooch take on a more sombre air. It was adopted as a sign of mourning, with cameo brooches carved from shell, and inscribed with dates of birth and death. They often had lockets of hair from the deceased woven into them. Queen Victoria’s self-imposed 50-year mourning for her husband during the late 1800s created demand for black clothing and jet jewellery, as loyal subjects rushed to copy their sovereign.

By the turn of the 20th century, the brooch took yet another, more political, turn when Holloway brooches were adopted by suffragettes and their supporters. Worn at the throat for maximum visibility, the Holloway had a distinctive hashed pattern, based on the portcullis of Holloway Prison, where many of the women were held. Art nouveau styling also emerged around this time, and its graceful, fluid lines soon made their way onto jewellery, with the likes of René Lalique crafting languid pieces in smoky enamel. The emergence of the Ballet Russes in 1907 and the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 set off a craze for anything Egyptian and/or geometric, which merged with cubism to evolve into art deco.

This style of symmetrical, structured patterning was ideally suited to jewellery, and soon Cartier, Tiffany and James Emmott Caldwell were all creating beautiful art-deco-inspired masterpieces that bristled with diamonds and onyx, and were set with increasingly clever mechanisms. Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels both created jewellery for the controversial Wallis Simpson – who became the Duchess of Windsor – including a Cartier flamingo brooch with wings of rubies, emeralds and sapphires, and the now iconic panther motifs, one of which was seated on a cabochon sapphire.

As the clothes of the 1920s and 1930s became lighter and more simple, they became the perfect foil to show off new jewellery purchases. Customers snapped up clever pieces that could be worn in multiple ways, including brooches that came apart to be worn on dress straps, bags and even shoes. New materials, such as platinum and chromium, came into use, while industrial materials such as Bakelite and steel were repurposed for jewellery, allowing the less well-off to also partake in the craze.

Today, after a few years out of the spotlight, brooches are back in style once again, with major jewellery and even fashion brands keen to get involved. “I would like to do something with brooches,” Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari’s creative director for jewellery, told us last year. “They are very elegant, and we have stopped wearing them. We have to adjust them a little bit, because maybe in the past they have been too heavy. But now, if we do something a little more light and playful, it could be something we can wear.”

Van Cleef & Arpels still makes its famous diamond Ballerina brooches – first crafted in the 1940s – while its Le Secret high-jewellery collection has charming brooches that merge technical mastery with a sense of whimsy, resulting in such pieces as a gem-covered parrot that carefully lifts a wing to show a tiny nesting chick, or a flower whose petals open to reveal a ladybird hiding within.

Le Secret brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels, with a parrot and chick
Le Secret brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels, with a parrot and chick

Also known for blending skill with playfulness is Chaumet, which offers high-jewellery brooches depicting sheaths of wheat captured in 18K yellow gold and white diamonds. Its Attrape-Moi collection is garden-inspired, with bees buzzing on a honeycomb of yellow sapphires, garnets and peridots.

Boucheron is another house with a long history and an eye for the unexpected, and its latest collections include the Arctic brooch, where a tiny diamond polar bear strides across a crystal iceberg; and Nymphéa, a water lily rendered in mother-of-pearl, diamonds and sapphires. Cartier, meanwhile, has brooches that include a tiny spray of blooms in rubies and emeralds, or delicate flower pins carved out of amethyst, chalcedony or aquamarine. A flock of miniature diamond parrots resides in the Fauna and Flora collection, while a wriggling lizard made of white gold, sapphires and diamonds, coils its tail around a cat’s eye tourmaline.

If there were ever any doubt that there are no truly original ideas in fashion, Roger Vivier, Miu Miu and Prada all play with heavy brooch-like jewellery on footwear, while Stuart Weitzman has really gone to town for spring/summer 2018, with a chunky heeled shoe topped with a crystal waterfall brooch.

Stuart Weitzman SS18 shoes with jewellery
Stuart Weitzman SS18 shoes with jewellery

Balenciaga has unveiled a costume aigrette brooch, while Gucci continues to experiment with granny chic, with retro-inspired, crystal-encrusted beetles, bows and double-G brooches.

Realised in priceless gems or faux diamanté, the options are endless when it come to brooches, with many designs following fashion’s current obsession with nostalgia. So, keeping in mind that in 2014, a rare 1930s Cartier Tutti-Frutti brooch was uncovered at a flea market (and later sold at auction for almost Dh55,000), perhaps now is the time to be nice to granny. She might just have been wearing a rare Georgian gem all along.


Read more:

Tracing the evolution of hand-held fans

Luxury investment: your guide to buying a precious pen

Why Elizabeth I wore pearls: the fascinating stories behind jewellery