The Victorian Brooch is one of the antiques we come across regular today. The range and variety of antique brooches worn in the 1800s was huge and many of these are still available to the collector or vintage enthusiast. We still see Victorian cameos, Mourning brooches, sentimental flower brooches, Scottish hard stone or pebble brooches and many more types. In general, they all have one thing in common they were made for show and many are quite large although you can find a few more delicate ones as well.
Here is AntiquesAvenue’s definitive guide to the different types and to how to identify the Victorian Brooch.
A classic from the times. Most Victorian cameos have been hand carved from shell, however, lava cameos, glass cameos and Wedgwood ceramic ones are all available. Most popular are classical scenes from ancient Grecian and Roman stories of Gods and Goddesses. We also see pictures of ladies many of which were commissioned by the subject when they were on holiday in Italy. Male subjects are much rarer. The price of a Victorian cameo is influenced by the size, condition and quality of the cameo and the frame it is set into. A large solid gold frame is going to add a lot to the cost. Look out for a subject you love, find a well-carved cameo which is nicely detailed. The condition of shell cameos is very important and as Victorian ones are now all well over 100 years old some have become cracked. Hold a cameo up to the light and you can see and problems more easily.
Following the death of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert there was a fashion for mourning and a trend to wear all black for a year after the death of a loved one. This led to the development of specific mourning jewellery made from black materials. The most popular of these was Whitby Jet as it is a material which is easily carved and polished into large pieces of shiny black which are still light weight. Jet reallyis the iconic material for a Victorian brooch.There are other materials which imitate jet such as Gutta Percha and French Jet which is a very dark purple glass. Real jet jewellery can now fetch quite high prices however the ones you find on AntiquesAvenue will be very reasonable compared to those you find in the shops. Jet comes from Whitby in Yorkshire. It is a natural product which comes from fossilised trees. Should you wish to see some excellent pieces of jet and learn more about it then I highly recommend the museum in Whitby where they have a wonderful exhibition.
Another popular type of mourning brooch had a central glass covered compartment which often contained a lock of a departed loved one’s hair. Around the central compartment would be a black enamelled panel which would have sentimental words picked out in gold. The back of the brooch could be inscribed with the name of the loved one and the date of their birth and death. You will find that inscriptions to young children are more collectable than to old men. Also the earlier the dates the better the find. This type of brooch was also found during the Georgian era, however, these were usually much smaller dainty than Victorian ones and are often called pins.
Victorian name brooches were very pretty having flower decoration around the name of the wearer. The ones we see most often are made of silver however occasionally you can come across a gold one. Of course, the name brooches from the 1800s have Victorian girls names. You can find Lily, Annie, Harriet, Flossie and Bessie but modern names are not available.
Hardstone / Scottish or pebble brooches
These brooches are known a hard stone or pebble as they are made of Scottish stone. The stones include different colours of granite and quartz and agates such as amethyst, carnelian and moss agate. The colours and patterns in these stones all look well set into silver and sometimes you see the pieces in gold. Most are from the Victorian era although a few are from the 20th century – see how to identify Victorian brooches below if you are after a genuine antique one. The colours of these Scottish brooches reflect the countryside and they look well with tweeds and similar clothing.
Large brooches in the high gothic style from circa the 1860s. Gothic is the style found in the houses of Parliament and many Victorian churches and country houses. These are often high end, made of gold and set with gemstones. More affordable gothic brooches are made of pinchbeck or rolled gold and set with paste stones. The best ones often have a large drop suspended from the main brooch. Not easy to wear with today’s clothing but great for period costume and for a collector. A great way of buying a genuine piece of Victorian Gothic at a reasonable cost.
Enamel, Mosaic, Painted These were more popular in the Victorian era than they are nowadays but this is not surprising given the brooches were larger in general and so there was more space to show a picture. The design could be made up of tiny glass or stone pieces as in mosaics, these were mainly made in Italy. We see lots of painted on porcelain plaques featuring a child in a scenic background – these came from Austria and Germany in the main.
There is the whole raft of lovely old pieces in this category but basically, they had the symbolism of love and friendship. This could be decoration taken from the language of flowers or with the sentiment written across the brooch itself. A good example of this is the Mizpah brooch where the word asks God to watch between parted lovers. Another piece given to a lover is the brooch with a hidden locket compartment at the back. A lock of hair or miniature of a forbidden love could be hidden inside and then it was worn close to the heart.
How to identify a Victorian Brooch
Want to know if you have a real Victorian brooch? Take a look at the following features and they will almost certainly help.
Catch / Hinge
During the 1800s the vast majority of Victorian brooch fastened with a C-shaped catch and would have a tube hinge. the hinge part of the tube became smaller in the Edwardian early 1900s. These are quite distinct from more recent catches and are one of the easy ways to identify that a brooch is Victorian.
If you are lucky you will find a set of silver or gold hallmarks on the back of a brooch. These can be used to tell the exact year the hallmarks were placed on the brooch As this is normally when the piece is new we can work out the date it was made in. You will need a book of British hallmarks to work out the year.
Sometimes the material the brooch is made of will tell you it is from the 1800s as certain substances were only used during that time. In the main, this applies to man-made materials such as Gutta Percha, Papier Mache and Pressed Horn.
Size In general brooches were smaller in the Georgian era and then from the 1840s, 50s and 60s will be larger and they gradually got smaller in size after that. Some of the extremes in size are difficult to wear on out everyday fabrics. The larger ones are fine for heavyweights such as tweeds and the smallest pins are fine for lace.
Victorian Brooches Many of these can still be worn today just as they were 150 years ago especially if they are made of silver, gold or gemstones. Take care with the catches as the C-shapes are not as secure as today’s roll over catches. Often adding a safety chain is a good way to avoid this. Other materials which are still wearable today include Jet and ceramics. I would treat any fabric or man-made material with great care and consider if they are the best simple admired as a collectable.