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.
This is a story about humility. And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes. I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information. This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture. Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.
Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem. Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another. It was unbelievable. Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs. I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.
In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice. Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling. I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels. I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential. Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral – as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.
Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent
This wasn’t far from the truth. Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered. The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned. One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth. Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them. Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith. The gold work is expertly enameled in a champleve manner. In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.
Sword, signed "Scott"
This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing. As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how. Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work. In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp. It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own. Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer. Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools. And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.
Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches. Barbarians? Hardly.