It was quite an entrance: as Lady Gaga emerged from the West Front doors of the US Capitol for the inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the USA, jaws dropped globally. That brooch!
In head-to-toe Schiaparelli Haute Couture – ‘fitted jacket in navy cashmere and skirt in washed red silk faille with a gilded dove of peace brooch’ – she was making a bold, unabashed statement. On Twitter later, just in case the message hadn’t got through, she explained its meaning clearly: “May we all make peace with each other.” Amen to that.
Brooches have long been used as visual cues, but will we ever see them as fashionable?
In recent history, their most faithful proponents have been older, empowered women. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in her 2009 book Read My Pins, ‘I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal’.
"I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal"
She enjoyed the ‘mute eloquence of pins with attitude’ — and boy did her pins have attitude, enough to stand up to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein (a snake coiled around a branch with a tiny diamond hanging from its mouth); to sanction the Cuban government (by wearing her circa 1880 Anton Lachmann Blue Bird – 14-carat yellow gold, silver, enamel, rubies and diamonds – with its head pointing downward, when usually it would be heading for the skies); and to be playful even when negotiating an anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Russians (she wore an arrow pin resembling a missile).
Pre-Lady Gaga, Albright can also lay claim to a powerfully symbolic peace-dove brooch, designed by Cécile et Jeanne, versions of which have been worn by a number of leading women of the international scene: Hillary Clinton, Cécilia Attias (formerly Sarkozy), Bernadette Chirac and Leah Rabin.
Then, of course, there is that now-infamous giant – and sparkly – spider brooch (designer unknown) worn by Baroness Hale of Richmond, former President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, while sanctioning the UK government in 2019. While capturing the imaginations of young and old, fashionistas and politicos alike, she has said that there was no intention behind her brooch du jour. ‘I wasn’t giving any sort of hidden message,’ she told The Guardian newspaper. ‘I’m not a politician, so I don’t play any part in politics. If I had realised some of the things that people might have speculated, then I would probably have worn an innocuous bunch of flowers.’ It did, nevertheless, hold the attention of the court – and the country.
“I wasn’t giving any sort of hidden message. I’m not a politician … If I had realised some of the things that people might have speculated, then I would probably have worn an innocuous bunch of flowers”
From law to lore of the red carpet, which insists: heads must turn. Quietly understated, Adele did just that at the 2017 Grammy Awards with her Givenchy gown and Lorraine Schwartz jewels, one of which was a lemon-shaped, diamond-encrusted brooch. It paid subtle homage to her fellow nominee, Beyoncé and her studio album Lemonade. The brooch signalled that, despite being competitors, Adele held Queen Bey in very high regard.
Whether at the restrained end of the scale (Adele) or shouting your message from the highest podium (Lady Gaga) these brooches illustrate what historian and author of Brooches: Timeless Adornment, Lori Ettlinger Gross, refers to as ‘…modernising in a dramatic way. [Brooches are] being embraced as a great, versatile ornament’.
“Brooches are being embraced as a great, versatile ornament”
A brooch isn’t constrained by a neckline, or a finger, or a wrist. A brooch can be used anywhere: at the waist, at the shoulder or on the shoulder, at the hip, on a wrist, in the hair.
There’s no one better to look to than Queen Elizabeth II, who used two of her six Queen Victoria Wheat-Ear Brooches as hair pins. With the younger generation taking up the power of the brooch, the Queen loaned a pair of the wheat ears to Princess Eugenie for her wedding in 2018. The Duchess of Cambridge, too, uses her brooches to underscore moments of importance, such as her Enigma machine-inspired pin worn for a visit to Bletchley Park in 2019, or her Celtic-knot brooch, worn on many occasions and rumoured to have been a wedding gift from Prince William.
Some of the greatest exponents of the brooch are, of course, some of the great houses – Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Chaumet – but also high-profile, contemporary jewellers such as JAR. One of his pieces, a tourmaline and diamond flower brooch, sold for CHF 1,179,000 in 2012 at Christie’s in Geneva. No one could describe it as a piece only for grandma. More recently, a JAR multi-gem butterfly brooch – cushion-shaped yellow diamond, single and circular-cut coloured diamonds, diamonds, citrines, orange sapphires, garnets, and pink tourmalines – sold for nearly CHF 400,000.
The Taiwanese designer, artist, jeweller Cindy Chao annually creates a single butterfly brooch. The tradition began in 2008, and as she says: ‘The annual butterflies embody the ongoing metamorphosis of myself as an artist, and the advancement of our techniques and craftsmanship.’
“The annual butterflies embody the ongoing metamorphosis of myself as an artist”
In 2013-14, however, she combined forces with Sarah Jessica Parker to co-design the Ballerina Butterfly Brooch, which went on to sell at auction for HKD 9,400,000, with proceeds benefitting the New York City Ballet. The catalogue entry read: ‘Modelled as a ballerina portraying a butterfly, the wings set with a cushion-shaped fancy brown-yellow diamond weighing 26.27 carats and three diamond plaques of champagne hue together weighing approximately 47.70 carats, embellished by variously shaped diamonds … mounted in titanium and 18-carat white gold.’
Now dare to say that brooches are unfashionable.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering about the headline for this piece. Yes, there is an Instagram hashtag of #bringbackthebrooch.