In the beginning, there was the stick pin, a slender needle of wood or metal that held a heavy cloak or cape in place. As centuries passed and other clothing fasteners became available, the stick pin evolved into a flashier, more decorative object we now call a brooch. But in spite of its elevated position as an object of beauty, it never lost its core functionality. Many brooches can still be used as fabric fasteners, taking on additional rules such as reflecting authority or cultural values, serving as a family keepsake, and even signaling the wearer’s mood.
Brooches date back at least 5,000 years, to the Bronze Age, when people kept their garments in place with bronze or iron clasps. They were most often plain objects, but some were decorated with stones, enamel, bone, polished glass and occasionally gold and silver. Archaeologists named these clasps fibulae because their construction was similar to the shape of the fibula, the smaller bone in the lower leg.
Fibulae were classified as having four parts: the body, or plate; the pin, the spring, and the hinge, which works much like the modern safety pin. Although they were more complicated, fibulae were a vast improvement over the ancient stick pin and allowed for more intricate decoration as well. Fibulae designs uncovered by archaeologists include versions that resemble a violin bow, a compact spiral, and also a flat piece shaped in the form of a hand.
The Middle Ages saw the arrival of the button and its crucial counterpart, the buttonhole. This fastening system allowed wearers to close their clothes more firmly and comprehensively. Freed from their baseline function, fibulae began the transformation into the brooch.
Up until the Industrial Age, only the most affluent could afford brooches. The must-have accessory of the early 15th century was a cameo brooch featuring the profile of an ancient philosopher, scholar or royal rendered in cornelian shell, sardonyx, mother-of-pearl and even lava rock. The cameo brooch was a fashion accessory that lasted. Both Empress Josephine of France and Queen Victoria of England adored them.
A second brooch style that lasted the test of time – from the 14th century to the Edwardian era and beyond – is one that depicts flora and fauna surrounded by a semi-precious stone or many different stones. Ancient Greek or Etruscan imagery was carved into cartouches during the Victorian era, with diamonds playing an important role in their designs.
After the death of Prince Albert, the mourning brooch gained popularity. They were typically made from onyx or some other black stone and trimmed in gold. Sometimes they contained the hair of a lost loved one.
Art Nouveau brooch designs reached new creative heights in the hands of French glass master Rene Lalique and American visionary Louis Comfort Tiffany. When Art Deco took its turn in the design spotlight, Louis Cartier produce brooches resembling baskets of fruit in which jewels of corresponding colors represented apples, oranges and grapes. Another exceptional Art Deco brooch designer, Frenchwoman Suzanne Belperron, produced brooches featuring flora, fauna and insects.
By the mid-20th century, impressionist painter Salvador Dali pushed the brooch to new aesthetic heights with distinctive examples such as a gold bas-relief of Tristan and Isolde in red and clear enamel. Alexander Calder and Man Ray contributed brooches that featured highly geometric or abstract styles. Today, top-flight artisans continue to envision their own takes on the time-honored brooch with pieces that seem more like art than jewelry. Even the ancient stick pin has been revived and reimagined.
Brooches are, of course, made to be worn. It’s no surprise, then, that many collectors view them as personal statements. One of the most prominent brooch collectors is former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She has amassed more than 200 brooches in a collection that was comprehensive enough to sustain a 2010 exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute titled “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection.”
As the top diplomat and usually the only woman in high-level international negotiations, Albright frequently used her brooches to convey messages. In the run-up to the show, she recalled in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, “I had an arrow pin that looked like a missile, and when we were negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, the Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’”
While they haven’t yet enthralled younger generations as they did Secretary Albright and Queen Elizabeth II of England, brooches provide both designers and jewelry fans an excellent canvas for expressing an idea or mood as the perfect finishing touch to an outfit. Albright has said that her choice of brooch broadcasts “… what I’m feeling like on a given day or where I’m going. But mostly it’s fun. It’s just a good way to get started.”