Everyone knows what a brooch pin is. But what is it? For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece. It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand. All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.
Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe. A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans. The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe. We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense. Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing. It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.
Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors. From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone. At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform, a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.