Brooches are traditionally defined as an ornament fastened to clothing with a hinged pin and catch. Throughout history, brooches have had a special ability to reflect both timely fashion trends and deeper cultural influences. In this article, we’ll explore the vast array of vintage and antique brooches available at auction and how they can still serve as functional and symbolic statement pieces in your wardrobe today.
The History of Brooches
Brooches or Brooch pins were initially created for functional use in the Bronze Age as fastenings to secure cloaks, scarves and capes. Prior to the Middle Ages, they were known as fibula, and materials used included thorns, flint, and sticks, before evolving into beautifully handcrafted metal objects. By the Byzantine period, brooches underwent an even more ornamental makeover to become decorative displays of jewels and craftsmanship.
The 14th Century
Starting in the 14th Century, the Renaissance period in jewelry was a time of wealth and opulence. Elaborate brooches covered in gemstones or pearls were in fashion, especially amongst the noble and merchant classes. Gemstones commonly used for brooches were believed to have protective qualities, including emeralds, diamonds, rubies, amethyst and topaz. During the fifteenth century, advances in cutting techniques resulted in new gemstone shapes, while brooches with religious motifs and enameled miniature portraits also became popular during this time period.
From the 1500s onwards, global exploration introduced new sources of diamonds, gems, pearls and precious metals to Europe and Great Britain. Jewelry styles closely followed the rapid changes in clothing fashion during this era. By the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, brooches were not only valued for their ornamental qualities but also as symbols of wealth and power. They often featured an ornate combination of precious metals, gemstones, pearls, three-dimensional scenes, carvings and intricate metalwork.
From the late 17th century onwards, Aigrette brooches became the height of fashion. Largely associated with the elaborate wardrobes of the gentry on their ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, these brooches were often feather-shaped and set with flat-cut diamonds or garnets in silver settings. They could be worn in the hair and were very detailed, sometimes with tiny birds flying around the plume.
Ornate style brooches with complex designs were fashionable through the first half of the 18th century, but by the mid to late 1700s, simpler forms and designs inspired by Neoclassicism, were more common, with simpler themes of nature, bows, miniature portraits and animals.
Typically handmade in gold or silver, diamonds and pearls continued to be popular throughout this period. During this time, brooches were typically foil backed and had closed back settings. This was to enhance or change the color and luster of the gemstone.
The Cameo Brooch
A key innovation during this period was the advent of hard paste cameos by the English pottery maker Josiah Wedgewood. Cameo brooches depicted portrait silhouettes or classical scenes. Hand painted miniatures also became extremely popular and a preferred method to carry portraits of loved ones.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century, the En Tremblant brooch (French for ‘tremble’) was another highly praised style. This trembling effect was created by bouquets of gemstones delicately moved to catch the light, which was the key to their popularity before the advent of electricity. Normally set with rose-cut or old-mine cut diamonds, this style of brooch often resembled a floral form or flower spray. The centre of the flower was attached to a mechanism that allowed it to quiver when worn.
The Victorian Era
During the Victorian era, brooch styles turned heavier and more somber, using materials like black enamel, jet, and black onyx. Their fascination with mortality was perfectly reflected in the ‘mourning brooch’. Made to be worn with the all black mourning outfits of the time, they were typically more discreet, often featuring engravings of the date of the deceased and a removable glass panel to store a lock of hair.
Brooches in the Modern Era
Towards the end of the 19th and start of the 20th, brooch designs embraced naturalism, often depicting accurate manifestations of objects and figures from nature, such as insects, butterflies and flowers. This approach was typical of the Belle Epoque movement, which designer Rene Lalique became synonymous with (see here for more about the Art Nouveau jewelry from this movement). During the Belle Epoque movement in France and the Edwardian era in England, these soft, feminine pieces continued to flourish into the first decade of the 20th century.
Following the First World War, jewelry saw a dramatic shift. In the 1920s, brooches moved away from soft, naturalistic designs and Art Deco picked up steam. Ribbons and bows were out; emeralds and diamonds were in. As the Art Deco aesthetic came into fashion, brooches followed suit with bolder structures, high-contrast color palettes, geometric shapes and abstract designs inspired by designs from Cubism, Fauvism, and art motifs from Egypt and India. Materials used included black onyx, coral, quartz, lapis and carnelian alongside classic stones such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. One of the most famous jewelry houses associated with Art Deco was Cartier, whose brooches featured geometric lines and strong, high-contrast gem colors—usually in a double-clip style.
Due to scarcity of materials during WWII, the production of brooches did not pick up again until the late 1940s and 1950s. Cartier’s famous Panther brooch was created for the Duchess of Windsor in yellow gold, emeralds, and black enamel. An iconic emblem of the French jewelry house since 1914, this was the first time that the panther was represented in its entirety. This design was later reproduced in other materials, including this example from the 1970s:
Designs also started to reflect the abstract qualities of art deco during the 1950s, but this time, with more dramatic effect. Brooches, such as this example by Boucheron, were designed to move with the wearer. The bottom of the brooch is articulated—or connected by a flexible joint—which gave the jewels a new found freedom.
The 1960s saw a return to the natural motifs of Art Nouveau, but with a bolder, more modern approach. The designs were well structured and exacting, demanding meticulous detail in an attempt to create realistic representations of insects, leaves, birds and trees.
In the early 20th century, it was all about traditional diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Yet, the improvement of technology and the discovery of multiple colorful gemstones in the 1970s and ’80s, brought more subtle shades of sky blue, yellowish greens and soft pinks. Together with the mainstay of gold as a primary setting, brooches were more bold and eccentric than they had ever been. Arguably leading the charge in this was Italian jewelry house, Bulgari.
During the 1990s and 2000s, brooch motifs themselves did not dramatically change. However, the modern era ushered in material changes that continue to influence designs today. Recently, designers began experimenting with new materials, such as titanium and wood, providing more flexibility in the size and shape of brooches.
The use of the brooch for its symbolic powers is still popular today. For example, the female members of the British Royal family are known to use brooches to reinforce diplomatic relations. Other women in high powered positions also wear brooches as subtle political statements and jewelry designs have reflected this social development, becoming bolder and somewhat less delicate.
How to Wear a Brooch
As this article shows, there is a vast array of both antique and vintage brooches on the market that would enhance any personal style. Whether you choose to invest in fine jewelry or experiment with costume styles, brooches are now part of the growing jewelry customization trend found amongst all ages. Due to their versatile nature, they can be worn almost anywhere on the body, including the head, and on any type of clothing.
Here’s a brief guide to help you style your brooch collection:
- For a modern twist on vintage styles, you can combine any classic tailored blazer and white-t shirt with a more bold statement brooch pinned to the label.
- Brooches are traditionally worn on the left side lapel, but rules are less strict with contemporary style.
- The growing popularity of masculine styles for women looks like it’s here to stay. This trend works well with ornate brooches, as it provides a minimalist backdrop. Gender specific rules are out and influential women have been seen wearing traditionally masculine jewelry styles, such as lapel or tie pins. The same goes for men.
- Brooches are also perfect for elevating wedding outfits and provide a clever solution for moving from day to evening-wear.
- Wearing a cluster of small brooches or pins can add personality to a jacket or shirt.
- You can try wearing brooches on your hat or even in your hair.
- Vintage doesn’t necessarily mean elaborate. You could try finding more paired down styles from the 1980s and 1990s.
- Brooches also act as a good substitute for earrings and necklaces, offering a similar effect while minimizing the need for bright colors.
Looking for more? Browse pins and brooches for sale at auction now on Invaluable.