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.
With a touch that is either sarcastic or ironic, the live created by de Castellane for her Dior line ‘Reines et Rois’ in 2010 made a curious statement. The ‘Kings’ are skull pendants elaborately festooned with diamonds, while the ‘Queens’ are similar rings. Presumably, the King is to be worn like a badge on one’s chest, while Queen is wrappedThe skulls are carved of semiprecious stones, with names matching the stones, such as Reine d’ Opalie, Reine de Chrysoprasie, or Roi de Jaspe. While ex-votos are not a new phenomenon in jewelry, these pieces are clearly for the amusement of the wearer, and perhaps in the vein of artist Damien Hirst, who produced a diamond-encrusted platinum skull at a cost of nearly £10 million, this is the designer’s way of producing objects that mock death as a way of coming to terms with it.
Reines et Roi 1
One reviewer caught on to the curiosity of the line… in plastic or even silver these rings would be ordinary street kitsch, but the elaboration makes a statement about what we might regard as ‘elevated taste’, which is to observe that there seems to be no distinction within the classes between kitsch and ‘luxury’ at this point. The unfortunately anonymous reviewer (perhaps a marketer of the design house) was poignant to note that ‘the line’s success indicates a strong morbid desire that has developed today, one that makes people clearly prefer skulls over hearts or symbols of love’. Indeed mystery reviewer, the movement away from symbols of love and sentiment is a phenomenon across the arts and culture in general that arrived with modernism, and historically can be traced back to the onset of the crazy wars that shattered in the ‘New Arts’ ascendancy in the early 20th century. It would appear that the door to morbidity is the only symbolic door that seems to have been left open in this post-modern, sentiment cleansed world. That this is deeply embedded in our culture is well illustrated by luxury goods that bear no real distinction from the playthings of adolescents save their price.
At the same time, perhaps these might be regarded as simply high-end kitsch, and not an indicator of elite tastes. The pavé diamonds are not terribly costly, and the skulls require so much material it is not a surprise that they are low quality and muddy in color. It may be better to view this line as kitsch with a nice label, as most of luxury goods have become. With the material factor out of the way, we can look with fresh eyes at the work of the designer, which shines through. The care and fluidity of her crowns, feathers and collars are clearly graceful, and each is instantly distinguishable from each other.
Here, in a time when we have an essentially inverted culture – when luxury goods are cheap mass-productions and well-crafted artisan goods as valueless without a luxury label, or if you prefer, a time when skulls are preferred love tokens, it is always refreshing to see the touch of an engaged designer, even if they are nearly anonymous within a production house.