Sign up here

Learn about the history of brooches in Europe

Since antique times, brooch has been an ornamental piece that arose from the need to fasten some pieces of clothing. In the beginning, it was a jewel worn by both men and women, but today it has become an accessory only used by women. Below we tell you the history of brooch in Europe.


The beginnings of brooches

We have evidence that Sumerian civilization used large needles to fasten women’s garments. The most used materials in this fine jewellery, only available to the elites, were gold and silver, together with lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. One of the most recurrent decorations were spirals, created with a gold thread rolled up on itself. In ancient Egypt it was common to use embossed gold discs sewn to clothes. You can purchase that kind of pieces in an auction house, such as Balclis.

In antique times also stood out the clothing ornaments of the Iranian treasure of Oxus. They were gold discs with embossed decorations representing sphinxes, griffins and animals. In Ancient Greece, the use of fibulae to fasten clothing was common, and there have been found some gold models, with a curved part, a flat part with inlaid decoration of animals or other abstract symbols such as the swastika, and of course the pin of the clasp. There have also been found examples of brooches or ornamental elements in embossed gold in the shape of birds, such as falcons. Etruscans and Romans kept widely using fibulae.

The brooch as main ornamental element

In Europe, during the Iron Age, brooches were the main ornamental element in Celtic territories. They were used to fasten capes in the whole continent, from the British Islands to Turkey. Brooches were made of bronze, iron, gold or silver, with a stylized decoration representing wheels or animals such as birds or mammals, and sometimes included champlevé enamels.

The examples in the Iberian Peninsula from the Iron Age period are also important, specifically those made in the Duero area, which had the shape big safety pin. After the fall of the Roman Empire, brooches of Roman and local tradition continued being used, but from the 4th Century on, the Christian iconography was incorporated, and the niello stood out as a new technique.

The different Germanic cultures in Europe made the brooch one of the main jewels at last, and we can find a wide number of shapes: circular shapes, arch shapes, fibula shape or the so-called “quoit” brooch, consisting of a ring with a pin in its centre that attaches it to clothing.

Gold and silver, the most widely used materials

The main decorations used to be geometric and natural patterns, with animals such as birds or horses. The most widely used materials were gold and silver, set with colourful crystals or precious stones that brought colour: maroon was the most commonly used. Vikings also used to wear brooches: the penannular brooch. It was a big needle over an open big ring, so we think that, apart from its functional use, it was probably used to show the status of its wearer.

In the Middle Ages, the most common jewel was the brooch, used to fasten dresses at torso height. They were made of silver or gold and many of them had inscriptions; there were also brooches with cabochons of polished stones, such as sapphires or cabochon rubies. The most common shape was a round disc with the clasp’s spike inside it. Over time, other shapes appeared, such as rhombuses, hearts, initials and even more or less stylized flowers.

Brooches in Modern Europe

During the Renaissance and Mannerism, the most common pieces were pendants, ensigns and plumes, and since these pieces could be sewn to clothing, brooches with a spike, as we know them today, were very scarce. During the Baroque period, however, emerged the chest brooches; they did not have spikes either, because they were conceived to be sewn to the clothes. The first models were worn by men, but women started to use them soon. Necklaces were used to make gathers with a brooch, but this was a mere decorative adornment that, unlike previous times, did not sustain anything.

At the beginning, brooches structures used to be openwork, symmetric or full of diamonds. Later, colourful stones were incorporated; the most commonly used were emeralds, rubies, garnets or, more rarely, rubies. The backsides were glazed at first, but later were subtly chiselled with floral and vegetable decorations. The most outstanding were the chest brooches, designed as a bow and a lower part in the shape of a Greek cross.

Big sized brooches

Ribbon brooches represent the physical realization of velvet and silk ribbons used by ladies during the Louis XIV period. According to legend, the writer Madame de Sevigné was the first person who used this kind of ornament, hence its name. This jewel was attached to the chest guard to mark the horizontal line of the neckline, which at that time had considerably dropped.

Ribbon brooches represent the physical realization of velvet and silk ribbons used by ladies during the Louis XIV period.

In Baroque’s first stage, brooches were of reasonable size. However, in the second half of the 17th Century, they were increasingly larger, both vertically and horizontally. During the Rococo period, corset ornaments became more complex or they were complete and covered the entire corset in the shape of a triangle. They were also made of sections of superimposed pieces in diminution.

The large trembleuse brooches

In the 18th Century aroused a taste for picturesque and nature. That’s why there were many floral and vegetable designs throughout the 18th Century. The designs of the beginning of the Century were quite fine, and later they became of greater extravagance, such as the large trembleuse brooches full of diamonds and of which Balclis, auction house of old brooches, has auctioned several.

By the late 18th Century, due to the new empire-line in costumes, the use of corsets was discontinued. Brooches were of a more moderate size, with a spike and a bracket, and they have remained this way until today. The main decorations are old bows, palm leaves, laurels and others.

Iconography and decorative details on brooches

In the 19th Century, due to the gentrification of clothing, daily brooches became smaller. They were designed to be worn at the neck height, over clothes. Realistic floral designs are due to the prevailing naturalist movement of the period. Those brooches were made in gold and silver, in the shape of trembleuse flowers, leaves and butterflies.

At the same time, there were also historicist models, such as cameo brooches, with Roman decorative details, and also Anglo-Saxon models and genuine replicas of antique models. On the other hand, there was a proliferation of brooches that could be transformed into hair ornaments. Other jewels, such as earrings, were also very common and they sometimes contained miniature portraits or even hair of the beloved person.

With the emergence of Modernism, brooches included the new iconography of decadent nature and symbolist women, as well as decorations of flowers, dragonflies, insects or birds.

Brooches in the 20th Century

During the Belle Époque and the Art Déco periods, brooches became more and more plain, usually mounted in platinum and full of brilliants. The first Belle Époque models included garlands and flowers. Bow-shaped brooches were still common during that time. Round-shaped designs also appeared in that period, although their lines were more stylish. Many of them were full of brilliants, and they became very popular to be worn together with pearls necklaces.

Art Déco brooches were more geometric, with Oriental influences, such as Japan or ancient Egypt.

Brooches: jewels for modern women

There was a new contrast of colour and textures in pieces, and we can find grids, lattices … new tactile sensations not seen so far. Brooches became jewels for modern and independent women, who abandoned the corset and used shorter skirts. Brooches were often placed on shoulders, belts and neckline, and many times on hats.

More imaginative materials were incorporated to the completely white diamonds of the earlier period, and jade, onyx, or corals appeared. The most representative brands of the period were Cartier, Boivin, Jean Desprès or Boucheron.

After the Second World War, brooches and clips became larger, in order to compensate the low number of precious gems. Brooches were made of solid gold, yellow and often rose, and decorated with volutes, rinceaus, bows, flowers and vegetable styling.

The most luxurious ones were full of diamonds. Many of them also included gems, such as rubies, sapphires or citrines, among others. Van Cleef and Arpels was one of the most imaginative brands of that time. They invented the invisible mount, where staples cannot be seen.

Use of new materials in brooches

The 1950s were much more imaginative and we can find brooches with animal shapes, such as dogs, cats, parrots, elephants… and an endless number of floral and vegetable elements. Pieces were made in white or yellow gold, and the most common gems were diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds. Many other stones were also included, for example turquoises, tiger’s eye… And the enamelled models were widely used as well. The pieces in those decades were fun, as well as beautiful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the interest for new materials and the combination of different gems cuts increased. So, brilliant, carrée, baguette, emerald or marquise cuts could be joint in the same brooch. However, due to the development of long necklaces throughout the 1970s, the taste for brooches declined.

During the 1990s, there was a revival of naturalist shapes, and we can find models of butterflies, fish or flowers. At the same time, there were other designs in which gems prevailed, highlighting those made by JAR.

Nowadays, the most common are the transformable hanging brooches. Their shapes are more discreet, since what prevails is the taste for gems, but above all, their functionality. You can also find that kind of pieces in online brooches auctions at Balclis.