Brooches probably started out as utilitarian fasteners rather than decorative pieces of fine jewelry. Some of the earliest brooches from ancient Roman times were shaped like simple rings or crescents. This style was also favored by the Vikings and medieval Europeans, who used them to secure collars around their necks.
In their early history, brooches were worn by men as often as women. Europeans used them as badges or insignia to indicate status within the church or government. A fleur-de-lys brooch, for example, symbolized the French monarchy, while the white hart or stag became the icon of England’s Richard II, worn by his family members and courtesans.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans became obsessed with the cameos of antiquity. Artisans learned to carve intricate cameos out of shell, to be worn on state brooches, which were only displayed on special occasions and holidays, well into the early Renaissance.
Around the same time, jewelers developed enameling techniques, such as champlevé, as well as stone-cutting techniques, which allowed them to set gems in clusters. Aside from these clusters and cameos, brooches were designed with figural motifs like lions and eagles to indicate princely power.
It wasn’t until the 14th century that brooches were designed purely for amusement and decorative delight. Brooches now featured enameled images of flora and fauna, as well as noble women. Gothic influences led to brooches with architectural shapes, while other brooches were forged in the shape of letters.
In the 15th century, brooches were more likely to be single stones, or stones set side-by-side. Often a single stone would be at the center of an enameled flower, sometimes with a stem, like those worn by the Duke of Burgundy.
During the Georgian era, brooches adorned the large hats fashionable with aristocratic ladies. Such brooches would often take the shape of hats themselves, or of tokens of love or achievement in the arts. Marcasite—a gemstone made from pyrite, or fool’s gold—would often be set into cut steel...
Brooches became an important part of the elaborate parures of the Neoclassical Empire style, which also included tiaras, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets made with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, in patterns such as Greek frets and palmettes and shapes like laurel wreaths. The Restoration sparked a renewed interest in botany, and this was reflected the brooches of the day: Rococo hat brooches would be shaped like sprays of flowers.
During the Victorian era, industrialization made jewelry affordable and accessible to the middle class, as machines were developed to stamp and cut designs into metal. As a result, jewelry was common enough to move quickly through trends, even as certain styles remained timeless. On brooches, the fad for intricate cannetille work was easily replaced by fancy machine-stamped scrolls. Flamboyant, romantic brooches shaped like twisted tree branches and knotted ribbons became “statement pieces,” while matte finishes on gold gave some pins an antique look.
Architecture influenced Victorian brooch motifs, too, which might include Baroque cartouches or Gothic ogives. World events and news would often be documented in brooches with enameled, engraved, or stamped imagery. Styles influenced by ancient Greeks and Etruscans, like cameos, were also tremendously popular, as were brooches featuring star, cross, and target designs. Winged insects like butterflies, dragonflies, and gadflies were another common motif.
In terms of enameling techniques, the firm of Frederic Boucheron in Paris developed plique-à-jour around 1860. Lucien Falize, meanwhile, visited Japan, which had been recently opened to the West, to study the art of cloisonné. Later, René Lalique learned to make jewels using the basse taille method.
Diamonds, too, became far more common in Europe during the Victorian era, thanks to world exploration and trade. The same can be said for gemstones of every color from all around the globe, including garnet, tiger’s eye, black opal, sapphire, and ruby. These were set in brooches with naturalistic floral shapes. Jewelry makers even figured out how to make flowers appear more realistic, mounting them on brooches “en tremblant” by attaching them with a spiral spring. These flowers would tremble and shiver as the woman moved, like blooms in a breeze.
Floral and ribbon brooches would be worn on lacey neck corsages, or fabric chokers, that were stylish at the time. Diamond brooches, shaped like stars, crosses, flowers, butterflies, or horseshoes, would be sold in suites of five-to-nine pieces, which could be worn individually, all at once (along the neckline of a dress bodice, for example), or screwed into a tiara frame. Some brooches even came with prong fittings so they could be worn in the hair.
The increased mobility of Victorian Europeans and the interest in antiquities brought tourists to Rome, Florence, and Venice to visit historic sites. This created a souvenir market as travelers wanted mementos to take home and remember the sites they’d seen. Italian artisans began to employ micro-mosaic techniques, using tiny tesserae to create images of famous sites like the Pantheon or Capitoline Hill in brooches and pendants. Jewelers in Florence, meanwhile, specialized in a variety known as pietra dura, which used natural stone colors to depict flowers, insects, and butterflies.
The loss of her beloved Prince Albert plunged Queen Victoria into a constant state of mourning. Following the queen’s lead, ladies began to wear mourning jewelry to memorialize late loved ones. Mourning brooches were most often black, made with enamel, jet, onyx, glass, papier-maché, cast iron, Vulcanite, and even the hair of the deceased. These brooches were often set in gold and sometimes adorned with gold fringe.
During the brief Belle Epoque or Edwardian period, the mood lightened up quite a bit, and brooches were made with exotic and brightly colored stones like alexandrite, demantoid garnet, cat’s eye, green peridot, and amethysts. Butterfly brooches, in particular, were popular at the turn of the century, as were frog and lizard brooches.
Around the same time, leaders in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements began to reject the uptight Victorian styles and mass-produced decorative arts and adornments coming out of factories. Complex Gallic and Celtic knots and patterns were a popular theme for brooches among Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau jewelers in America and Europe.
The Art Nouveau artisans handcrafted particularly beautiful pieces in gold, silver, enamel, and semi-precious stones with sinewy organic lines, natural themes, and depictions of elegant women with long, flowing hair. Goldsmiths like René Lalique, Georges Fouquet, and the craftsmen at the Maison Vever were the masters of Art Nouveau jewelry. Lalique, in particular, crafted stunning brooches in a wide range of themes—nature, fantasy, literature, Neoclassicism, Symbolism, and the Orient. Others took inspiration from the edgy “Jugenstil” (“Young Style”) movement in Germany or the modernist brooches of the Wiener Werkstätte in Germany.
Well-established American fine jewelry firm Tiffany, founded in 1834, took a leap forward in 1902, when Louis Comfort Tiffany—often celebrated for his Art Nouveau Favrile glass and stained-glass lamps—founded the company’s “art jewelry” department, directed by Julia Munson. Tiffany himself made several noteworthy brooches using metal, enamel, and glass, as well as precious and semi-precious stones in Revival and Byzantine styles.
Brooches were again worn by men, as well as women, on lapels during the Art Deco period, which started in the 1920s. Fine jewelry firm Cartier made a clever little watch that dangled from a pendant and could be worn as a brooch. Under the direction of Louis Cartier, the company that established itself as “the world’s finest court jewelers” in 1847, became a major creative force in jewelry again.
In clips and brooches, Louis Cartier introduced a series of elaborate blackamoor heads, as well as Native American figures. These exoticized racial caricatures were copied profusely, by costume jewelers using plastics and base metals. But Cartier used carved jade and coral for his brooches and jabot pins. Other common motifs at Cartier included the “fruit salads” or “tutti frutti” fine metal baskets filled with masses of colorful jewels like emeralds, rubies, and sapphires representing flowers or fruits.
Even though costume jewelry, made with non-precious materials like glass and plastics, was flourishing during this time, established fine jewelers like Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, Janesich, Chaumet, Mellerio, Fouquet, and Maison Vever continued to produce their luxurious high-end brooches and pins.
Art Deco style required these jewelers to take inspiration from places like Egypt, Asia, and Africa and art movements such as Cubism and Futurism, as well as architecture like stepped Mayan pyramids and modern skyscrapers and machines, particularly automobiles and airplanes. The new look in brooches was highly geometric, fashioned out of baguette-cut diamonds, rubies, gold, and pearls, as well as unorthodox materials such as chrome, steel, plastic, and platinum. Thanks to the discovery of Tut’s tomb, Egyptian motifs like hieroglyphics and scarab beetles dominated '20s brooches.
In France, Lalique made Art Deco brooches with metal backs portraying subjects such as satyrs, serpents, moths, and stags. Georg Jensen, in Denmark, meanwhile, employed his skilled silversmithing to great effect in geometric forms and stylized animals like deer. Mexican jewelry styles grew popular, too, thanks to American designer William Spratling, who settled in Taxco in 1929 and began producing brooches in silver set with amethysts. Other Art Deco jewelry artisans like Gerard Sandoz, Jean Desprès, and Raymond Templier made some of the most collectible brooches today.
World War II brought tremendous despair throughout Europe, and so people there were drawn to the cheerful colors of “cocktail jewelry” and brooches made out of bright bursts of sapphires, citrines, aquamarines, and amethysts. Fine jewelers like Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, Chaumet, Lacloche, Mauboussin, and Mellerio were adept at this new style, when their resources and workers were not focused on the war effort.
The end of the war gave Paris designers permission to put more details into their simple tailored suits, and jewelry was a small but important piece of being fully dressed, as brooches, particularly those of flowers, were worn smartly on lapels.
The hard lines of geometric Art Deco brooches softened and figural brooches took on a more natural sense of movement. This trend was also reflected in brooches with fabric motifs in gold shaped like bows, tassels, and folded and pleated drapes. In the mid-1940s, Van Cleef & Arpels introduced its honeycomb design, a popular feature in brooches, made up of tiny, layered gold scales. The firm also produced stunning, large gem flowers in brooches with invisible gold settings.
Comic and cartoonish human and animal figures started appearing in fine jewelry brooches at the end of the war. These include colored gems shaped like clowns, scarecrows, farmers, and ballerinas. It was Cartier that took the trend for figural brooches to a whole other level, thanks to designer Jeanne Toussaint, who made ornate birds of paradise and, of course, the breathtaking diamond-laden panthers and leopards for the Duchess of Windsor. Huge sprays of diamond and colored-gem flowers were also common starting in the late '40s.
However, for formal events, all-white diamond brooches reigned in the deluxe jewelry world in the '40s and '50s. These pieces featured diamonds of all cuts and shapes pave-set in curving swirls, fans, and cascades. In the '50s, other expensive pieces were made with coral, turquoise, and yellow gold.
During that decade, animal figures became even more magical, especially birds, which appeared to soar, their wings flung open in the wind. Cartier made a trademark coral ladybird brooch, its figure adorned with little diamonds, and sometimes enamel, onyx, or lapis lazuli.
Pierre Sterlé of Paris also shone when it came to wild and whimsical animals. He tapped into the '50s fascination with the mysteries of the ocean, with his coral and diamond starfish, as well as shells and seahorses. His birds and animals were almost Baroque in their mix of precious and semi-precious colored stones and gold fringes.
The biggest mid-century artists, however, were producing geometric abstract brooches with spirals and zig-zags in streamlined silver. Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, Georges Braque, and Salvador Dali all experimented with jewelry as a medium, and their fine-art work was knocked off for the general public.
Scandinavian artisans like Georg Jensen relied on a more sculptural style based on folk art that avoided the flamboyant in favor of a “democratic design.” Science, too, was a great inspiration for brooches, as gold and diamond pins took the shapes of molecular structures and models of the solar system.
Since the '60s, Cartier, Bulgari, Boucheron, Tiffany, and Asprey have continued to cater to their wealthy clientele with traditional gold-and-diamond brooches done in the “grand manner.” However, other artisans have taken the same materials and developed innovative designs with it, as the Abstract Expressions of the '60s did with their hard-edged geometric brooch styles.