A photo of an ancient Etruscan Fibula,  7th century BC

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Museum Appropriation Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

Brooches or fibulae are perhaps the oldest type of jewelry. When man first took to wearing something more than a loin cloth, there emanated the necessity of holding the cloth together. The thorn was probably the first of these pins, with pins of other material, like flint, found in the caves of the Paleolithic age. Pins of bronze were in common use during the bronze age.

There are several distinct types of brooches, not only in design, but in the fastening mechanism. The earliest known of these was the "safety-pin" form. This brooch had a pin, hinge, spring and bow all in one place. If a brooch is not a bow shaped, but round it is called "annular". A "discoidal" brooch has a solid plaque or ornamental face with a simple pin and hook in the back. The "pen annular" pin was developed by the Celts and had a gap in the ring.

The original roman brooch was the spina, which was a thorn or anything like a thorn. Then, along with the Greeks and Etruscans, the Romans used a safety-pin type almost exclusively. Before the Romans advanced to Britain, the populace of the British Isles wore fibulae of one piece. The typical harp shape of the later Britons only came into being during the Romano British period.

The earliest and most important influence on the development of the brooch came from the Byzantines. Their oriental taste for color produced many brightly enameled brooches. The nomadic barbarian tribes quickly carried this new art along trade and emigration routes. It soon became apparent as far away as Britain. The Byzantine brooches were of a discoidal nature, with each plaque made of hundreds of small coils. The period of pure Byzantine influence extended from the sixth to the tenth century.

The early Christian period made a great advance in its effect on brooches throughout the fifth and sixth centuries. Its influence brought the addition of symbols and inscriptions to the necessary brooch, helping along with the Byzantines, to push the brooch towards its ornamental character.

During the seventeenth century, the brooch made great strides in its size. With the increase in size came more area in which to freely use enamels and amber.

In Ireland from the ninth to the thirteenth century, the pen annular reached its point of perfection. This is evidenced in the Tara brooch, beautifully decorated gold with enamels and cabochon stones. The pin of the pen annular always pointed upwards when worn. Then the ring was twisted to hold the pin in place with the pressure of the material.

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Walter C. Baker
Photography by Erik Gould
Click on the above image
 for a larger detailed view

Even Scandinavia made contributions in the design of brooches, for they were of a great necessity with the heavy garments of the cold recesses of the north. Their brooches became fully developed in the latter iron age, when they took on an extraordinarily large and heavy appearance. Their most distinctive type was the tortoise or Viking brooch. These were made of tortoise shell, but so named because of their oval shape worked in solid bronze.

With the middle ages came a change in the manner of dress and so a lessening of the necessity of a dress fastener and the growth of the brooch as an ornament. Some styles prescribed the wearing of small brooches all over one’s clothing. The English and French used brooches with a ring and hinged pin. Jewels were popular to offset the look of the heavy metal. The ecclesiastical influence produced mottoes for decoration, usually of a religious or amatory character.

By the fifteenth century the discoidal brooch was the most universally worn and has continued to be so for the next five centuries. The discoidal face has varied in shape, sometimes is a solid or openwork design, but "the characteristic of having hinge, pin and catch on the back of a flattish ornamented front were retained." The sixteenth century produced even more enameled gold in designs of figures and animals .

The use of large stones became scarce in the seventeenth century. In its place came groups of flowers made of gold and silver openwork set with smaller stones. These bouquets of flowers were set in a basket or vase, with the back of the brooch engraved in accordance with the front.

"The age of gems" revived the use of stones set in gold. The eighteenth century brooch became a geometrical arrangement of small stones grouped around a larger one. Pearls made up the most popular brooch called the "girandole." It was a type of formal, flower arrangement of a large center ornament with three hanging pearls. There are variations, but the basic form is a knot of ribbon, with flowers  and other ornaments. Their popularity combined with the scarcity of large pearls led to the use of imitation pearls set along with real gems.

The change from colored stones in the late eighteenth century to the use of silver set with diamonds and pearls also affected the brooch. From 1780 onwards, small works of art became popular. Miniature portraits and Wedgwood cameos were surrounded by diamonds or pearls to follow the fashion.

There were utilitarian brooches in the eighteenth century that closely trace the fashion of clothing. These were built upon the safety-pin type of catch. Useful brooches were of smaller size to better serve as lace pins to secure finery worn all times of the day. These useful pins were wrought of gold, silver, pinchbeck, but no matter of their settings  the stones were most often not of great value.

The nineteenth century brooch took on many looks, as did the rest of the jewelry created. Early in the century, brooches began to look like the lace that many of them held, with mixed wire-work and fancy stones. Later, the vogue was a brooch made with pavé turquoise and tiny seed pearls threaded on horsehair. Throughout the next century, brooches, as with all jewels, closely followed the latest fashion.

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