If the word brooch dredges up memories of rooting through your grandmother’s jewellery box, take note: the classic lapel accessory is enjoying a renaissance. Discover the history of the brooch throughout the ages: (Lead image courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana)

1. 1700s: Pins of the Past

Like the corsages of the era, jewellery was typically pinned to the front of the collar or along the bodice of a gown.

The history of the brooch goes way, way back, well beyond Great Gatsby flapper fashion—and even Queen Elizabeth I, for that matter. Brooches were born in the bronze age as simple pins used to clasp garments together, and gradually evolved into more decorative pieces for fastening cloaks, scarves and capes.

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“Women would always have this decoration at the time,” says Chu. “Sooner or later it evolved from the corsage to a brooch, which is what we see now.” As jewellery became synonymous with status in Europe, brooches followed suit. During the English Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, pins became valuable pieces of jewellery, often featuring precious metals and gems, pearls, three-dimensional scenes, cameos (profile carvings) and intricate metalwork.

2. 1800s: Natural Evolution

The Victorian era was dominated by naturalism. Brooches depicted birds, flowers and leaves, usually set in silver or yellow gold. 

Entering the 19th century, the brooch embraced the naturalism movement, featuring accurate depictions of objects and figures from nature, such as insects, butterflies and flowers. Chu points to a 19th-century Boucheron brooch, one of the maison’s earliest pieces, which resembles a leaf with a bee resting on it. Made by founder Frédéric Boucheron, the brooch features silver-topped gold, rose-cut diamonds and a central ruby. 

“This antique ruby brooch is a great example of early brooches,” says Chu. “It’s inspired by nature. These designs are very feminine and soft, which reflects the times. In the 19th century and before, women were much more dependent figures, thought of as a wife and mother.” 

3. Early 1900s: New Era

Edwardian and belle époque jewellery called for dainty and delicate features—think garlands, ribbons, bows and ornate designs. 

During the belle époque in France and the Edwardian era in England, in the first decade of the 20th century, these soft, feminine pieces continued to flourish. A belle époque diamond brooch by Cartier was the most expensive brooch ever sold at Christie’s globally, garnering US$128.2 million at a Geneva auction in 2014. Mounted in platinum, the pear-shaped diamond centrepiece weighs in at 23.55 carats, while oval and marquise-shaped diamonds add another 30-plus carats to the piece.  

After WWI, jewellery saw a dramatic shift. Brooches moved away from the soft, naturalistic designs in the 1920s and art deco picked up steam. Ribbons and bows were out; emeralds and diamonds were in.

“What women were wearing impacted the way brooches were worn at any given time in history,” says Chu. “But the social and historical context matters too. If you look back to the history, women were actually becoming more powerful in society and in politics. Even jewellery reflects this social development, and designs became stronger and a little bit more masculine.”

Cartier’s brooches in the art deco period featured geometric lines and strong, high-contrast gem colours—usually in a double-clip style. “Some of the most beautiful brooches have some sort of unique quality and provenance, usually from the art deco or the earlier centuries,” says May Lim, a jewellery specialist at Christie’s. “When it’s done right, it really illuminates and adds this little je ne sais quoi. A brooch can make any outfit more significant.”

4. 1920s-40s: Post-War Comeback

As the art deco aesthetic came into fashion, brooches followed suit with bolder structures, high-contrast colour palettes, and classic gems. 

Brooches had a hiatus during World War II due to limited materials but bounced back in the 1950s. Collections of brooches mirrored the earlier art deco days, but with a dramatic departure—an elongated, cascading design that resembled a waterfall of diamonds. “Instead of the rigid outline of the ’20s and ’30s, it was a little softer again—not as extreme as the 19th century or the Edwardian period, but the arrangements were more delicate,” says Chu. 

5. 1950s: Mid-Century 

The calling card of a 1950s brooch is a cascade of white diamonds, often set in white metal.

Crafted by Boucheron circa 1950, the vintage Diamond Brooch, which sold for US$187,500 at auction in 2016, features a signature detail from mid-century brooches: designs that move with the wearer. The bottom of the brooch is articulated—or connected by a flexible joint—which gives the jewels a newfound freedom. 


6. 1960s: Return to Nature

Following a return to natural motifs, birds were commonly featured in whimsical brooch designs in the ’60s.

With the ’60s came more whimsical brooches and another nod to naturalism. But these new pins weren’t flimsy nor feminine. They were well structured and exacting, demanding meticulous detail in an attempt to create realistic representations of insects, leaves, birds and trees. For example, a 1960s aquamarine and diamond Bird Brooch by Sterlé Paris, which sold for US$187,500 in 2016, certainly looks the part. This 18-karat gold number combines varying textures and colourful accents to resemble a gorgeous bird perched on a golden twig. Colour was a distinctive characteristic of ’60s brooches. 

In the early 20th century, it was all about traditional diamonds, rubies and sapphires. But slowly, more subtle shades of sky blue, yellowish greens and soft pinks came into vogue. The reason is simple. At the time, people were just beginning to learn about coloured gemstones. “Generally, fashion became more colourful during this time period,” says Chu. “Technology improved and women craved diversity. This was a beautiful time for brooches.”

7. 1970s - 80s: Golden Era

Yellow metal dominated the scene, thanks to the influence of the Middle East.

Entering the 1970s and ’80s, brooches continued to incorporate colourful gemstones, but gold became the primary setting. As the world bounced back after World War II, oil prices were skyrocketing and wealthy collectors in the Middle East had virtually unlimited buying power. As such, more and more designers incorporated cultural elements into the jewellery of the era.

“You can see this in a brooch made by Bulgari in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Chu. “It’s made in a shape of an Islamic religious motif, like what you would see at a temple, with a yellow diamond in the middle. It’s stunning.” 

8. 1990s - now: Light as a Feather

Designers began experimenting with new materials, such as titanium and wood, providing more flexibility with the size and shape of brooches. 

While brooches didn’t radically transform in the ’90s and 2000s, these two decades ushered in material changes that continue to influence designs today. Whereas traditional brooches were made of dense platinum, silver and gold, contemporary brooches are often composed of lighter materials such as ebony or titanium. That way, jewellers can create larger, more intricate pins that won’t tip you over.

In Asia, haute couture jewellery designer Cindy Chao has mastered the art of featherlight brooches. Over the past decade, Chao has been experimenting with larger designs made with titanium—one of the most durable yet lightest materials on earth.

“Aesthetics and functionality are the two key points when I create a brooch,” says Chao. “I think of women who are wearing silk, chiffon, satin, cashmere, so the brooches must be light enough to be pinned onto these fabrics. Brooches that are larger in dimension are very eye-catching and can add a touch of glamour.”  Her Phoenix Feather Brooch, which sold for US$8.7 million at Christie’s auction in May, features nearly 1,000 diamonds yet weighs just 36 grams—roughly the weight of two macarons. It’s so light, it can be worn on silk. “Chao’s craftsmanship and style is so distinctive and so special,” says Lim. “If you look at her background, she’s a sculptor, and she really used her hands to sculpt pieces. That is why it did so well in our auction.”

Prized for their rare gems and unique artistry, every piece in Chao’s Masterpieces collection has been meticulously crafted, requiring more than 10,000 hours—or roughly 23 months—to finish.

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The exacting work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, the Smithsonian Institution added Chao’s 77-carat Black Label Masterpiece Royal Butterfly brooch, which has 2,328 gems, to the collection of its National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, its first Taiwanese-designed piece. 

“Compared to the brooches crafted last century, contemporary brooches seem to be more audacious in terms of subject matter, materials and craftsmanship,” says Chao. “I am certainly curious about how people 100 years from now will see our current works.”

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