Women's Jewellery

Changing the pin code

Bold and beautiful, the brooch is back in business – for storytelling and extravagant expression, says Vivienne Becker.

October 31 2009
Vivienne Becker

When Madeleine Albright, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, knew she was being considered for the office of Secretary of State to President Clinton in his second term of office, she made a promise to herself. If appointed, she would buy the antique eagle brooch with diamond-encrusted etched-gold outstretched wings that she’d seen in her favourite antique jewellery shop, the Tiny Jewel Box in Washington. She was, and she did. And in January 1997, as she was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State – the first woman to hold this office, and at the time the highest-ranking woman in the US Government – the impressive golden eagle also took up position high on her shoulder. (She does recall, however, a nasty moment when its clasp came undone and the eagle was left dangling in mid-air, as if taking off on its own flight path through the glass ceiling.)

The eagle, part of what she now calls her Americana group, and often worn with an Uncle Sam top hat, joined the fast-growing swarm of brooches that Albright started to wear, with playful wit and audacious panache, to send diplomatic messages or as indicators of her mood and intent, during strategic meetings on US foreign policy. Paraphrasing George Bush, she urged the media to “read my pins”. It was, she says, a way of having some fun and owning up to her femininity in a male world (at the time she was the only woman on the Security Council). “I love being a woman and from the start at the UN I wanted to show this,” she says. “You don’t have to be frilly and feminine; the brooch signals that you like who you are. I wanted people to know I liked what I was doing, that I found it fulfilling.”

During her time in office she became known for her brooches, which got bigger, bolder and more outspoken as her confidence grew. Now, her collection of some 200 democratic and eclectic brooches – exquisite antiques spanning a century or more mixed with dollar-store purchases and personal mementos – is on show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York (until January 31 2010). The exhibition is accompanied by a book written by Albright, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box (HarperCollins, £25), telling the tales behind her brooch-wearing and using the jewels as stepping stones through history, her personal memoirs and insights on international relations.

It all started when, as UN Ambassador, she had criticised Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government. “The Iraqi press published a poem referring to me as an ‘unparalleled serpent’,” she explains. Preparing to meet with Iraqi officials again, she remembered her Victorian burnished-gold serpent pin and decided to wear it to the meeting: “I didn’t really realise that people would respond in this way,” she says. “I didn’t realise the power the brooch would have.”

Albright has always bought and worn her pins on instinct, and seeing them in themed groups and a historical context has, she says, been an eye-opener. “What was most fun, and still is, is getting up in the morning and figuring out what the day is going to be, what brooch I shall wear to suit my mood, my intentions.” For her constant travelling, the brooch has been essential. “I take minimal clothes and as many pins as I possibly can. They change the whole look, from workday to evening wear.” But above all, the brooch has served as an icebreaker, enabling people to come up to her, at airports or in stores, ask about her brooch and talk to her. “They have an excuse and I love it, meeting and talking to people,” she says.

Now, as well as being celebrated as one woman’s vehicle for both political and sartorial statements, the brooch as conversation piece, with its sophisticated system of semiotics, has become a global fashion trend, spurred on by a 1980s echo – sculpted tailoring and wide shoulders – and an irresistible temptation to subvert the conventions surrounding it. Just as Jackie Kennedy wore Van Cleef & Arpels flame brooches on her belt, in her hair and clipped to a pearl necklace, so Michelle Obama, continuing political traditions, has taken to wearing bright, bold brooches, layering her love of colour with, for example, an Erickson Beamon turquoise flower brooch pinned at the centre of a V-neckline.

Pieter Erasmus, the eponymous designer behind the brand St Erasmus, whose jewellery the current First Lady has worn to great effect, is showing a series of warm, brown- and black-toned brooches (from £82) for winter, encrusted with crystal stones, some captured in net or mingled with embroidery. Lanvin, which has done so much to integrate jewels and fashion, features brooches this season, including an antique-looking heart and arrow brooch framed in ribbons (£364), and Gianfranco Ferré has chosen a pin for its new signature motif (£330), the safety pin or fibula being one of the earliest, archetypal forms of brooch or dress fastener. For one of her last collections for Louis Vuitton (before moving to Dior), jewellery designer Camille Miceli has created dramatic oversized brooches inspired by wartime 1940s Paris, many with hanging charms and pearls (Frivole brooch £550).

“Flower brooches were big in the 1940s,” says Miceli, “so we worked on that, made them modern with exaggerated shapes and sizes and mixed unexpected materials, such as papier-mâché with glass pearls.” She likes breaking the rules of such an established jewellery classic: “I buy brooches to pin in my hair at the back, and I have an old Louis Vuitton dress with a deep split, at the top of which I put a super-classic brooch from my grandmother, so as not to be too aggressive or vulgar.”

Conversation brooches – very much a 1950s idea – are the focal point of Simon Harrison’s new own-name collection of fashion jewellery, which has a fine-jewellery aesthetic in its concept and craftsmanship. The three distinctive brooches launched this month (from £145) are each standalone pieces, distinctive and sculptural. “When I’m designing a brooch I want to give the wearer something special to talk about, a story or anecdote that sparks off a conversation between strangers,” he says. His 3-D enamel Frog Prince (£175), inspired by the famous fairy tale, is caught midway in its transformation, wearing a little waistcoat and clambering through an oversized crown. The detail on the inside, as intricate as the outside, is, says Harrison, a secret for the wearer. “You can have fun with brooches,” he explains. “They can be worn high on the shoulder, low on the waistband, at the back of a low-cut dress or below the cleavage. They can be used to gather fabric, transforming the shape of a garment, and can refashion an old jacket or dress at the back of the wardrobe.”

Of all jewels, the brooch allows the greatest freedom of form, uninhibited by the usual limitations of shape, size and scale imposed by a part of the body, and offering, as Madeleine Albright discovered, the greatest scope not only for storytelling but for extravagant expression of individuality, values and a point of view. This freedom is also being embraced and explored in fine jewellery. British artist-jeweller Kevin Coates indulges in the narrative of the brooch, crafting miniature sculptures with a sense of perspective that draw the eye inwards towards figural fantasies and wondrous creatures set within mathematical, geometric frameworks. Coates’ Notebook of Pins collection (from £3,600) celebrates the ancient pin form with a series of opulent and complex compositions, each set into its own notebook page of inspirations, ideas and materials.

From the avant-garde to the traditional, Van Cleef & Arpels celebrates the brooch as “the ultimate feminine accessory”, using it as a vehicle for its long-established motifs of flowers, fairies and ballerinas, and the exotic birds in its new Oiseaux de Paradis collection (from £6,850). Geoffroy Medinger, the UK brand director, says, “The brooch is definitely becoming more fashionable with new ways of wearing it in the hair, on a belt or shoulder strap, as an ornament for a necklace, or in extravagantly chic families and clusters. One client, for example, recently chose to wear no jewellery other than 10 dragonflies (£9,800) scattered over the front of her dress.” And Chanel, always remembering its links to couture, and channelling Mademoiselle’s way with a camellia or a rich Byzantine cluster, regularly finds ways to renew the brooch with its signature classic modernity. Its new High Jewellery Collection, Lumière, revisits the stylised diamond sunburst Soleil brooch (price on application), taken from one of the original designs from Coco Chanel’s convention-shattering 1932 collection of diamond jewels, and interprets the weightlessness of a ribbon, one of the most classic brooch designs of all time, in the Ruban Couture brooch (€250,000) – soft loops paved in white diamonds and stitched with black diamond lines. At Cannes this year Diane Kruger wore the brooch in her hair.

In its fusing of fashion and tradition, the brooch is, unsurprisingly, a perfect fit for designer Shaun Leane, whose work has been described as the “antiques of the future”. When he was commissioned to create a jewel by leading diamantaire Steinmetz, his immediate choice of form was a brooch. Set with branded Forevermark diamonds, his White Light brooch (price on request) depicts snow-laden entangled leaves and branches, and would be equally enchanting pinned to the strap of a dress or worn in the hair, as Kate Moss wanted to wear it. “Wearing a brooch is like wearing an art form,” says Leane. “Like badges, they give a strong sense of identity.” He has a strong feeling for a big brooch revival and is introducing centrepiece brooches to his new Cherry Blossom collection (from £135).

A brooch revival is bound to be steeped in the spirit of the 1950s, one of the most intense, creative eras of brooch wearing, and this year Verdura harks back to this time when it celebrates its 70th anniversary with a travelling exhibition of original jewels by its founder and socialite designer Fulco Santostefano della Cenda, Duke of Verdura. Including luscious, baroque brooches, these jewels became badges of status, taste and femininity for fashion leaders and power brokers from Babe Paley to Clare Booth Luce. Many designs are recreated today from the original drawings: the famous gold and gem-encrusted shells (£16,000), a ripe pomegranate bursting with cabochon ruby seeds (price on request), an autumn maple leaf in warm tones of garnets (£29,400). These, along with the quirky target and arrows brooch (£11,400) as worn by Sarah Jessica Parker – whose style embraces the brooch – are still bestsellers.

“Our fashionista clients like to wear brooches in an unconventional way, say on a denim jacket,” says Verdura’s London representative Harry Fane. “Being slightly irreverent gives the brooch great character and new charm.”

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