For the archeology examen of my history study, I had an internship at 2 places. One was the grave of Ramses II in Egypt and the other one in Dorestad (now Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands). Before you think ‘wow’, that is something… It was almost all the time dusting and dusting and another day dusting. But still, so interesting, because just before I started in Dorestad archeologists found a stunning fibula or brooch.
That was one of the most famous finds in Dutch history. That brooch is made of gold, different colors of glass, almandine (red semi-precious stone), and pearls along the side. The cloisonné inlay shows two intertwined crosses and is probably made in a Burgundian workshop at the time of Charlemagne (800 AD). This jewel must have belonged to a noble and rich person. We found it in a well, where it was hidden because of danger (probably the Viking attacks at the start of the 9th-century).
It was an honor to have an internship there and besides that, my interest in the predecessor of the brooch, the fibula, started there and then.
In this blog, I will tell you about the amazing history of the brooch from ages BC until now.
What is a fibula exactly?
A fibula is a Roman word and means ’pin’. (and fibulae is the plural). It is a utensil to close clothing and became a piece of jewelry. Most of the time it is made of metal (precious or non-precious) and has a two-part locking mechanism in the shape of a pin and a hole or bracket.
This brooch or pin is seen as the predecessor of the button and the zipper. But while you exactly know how a button or a zipper works, there is still an argument between the experts on how to wear it!
The fashion of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans was rather simple. They started, in the beginning, wearing a straight piece of cloth turned around their waist. Later a second piece of cloth was draped around the shoulders and the fibula kept the two pieces together.
People thought that draped clothes were a symbol of a high civilization. But especially for the ladies, it was important that the body parts that had to be hidden stayed hidden. So the pin was an essential part of their clothing, even for men.
With a pin like this, you could keep a coat and other clothing tight on your shoulders and the Roman ladies wore a tunic and on top of that, a stola or coat, and the fibula kept the pieces in one place. But as an essential piece of clothing, it can be nicely designed and decorated as well.
We find In the Netherlands and Belgium quite a lot of them in excavations from the Roman Times, mostly made of bronze. Some of them look like safety pins, others are made of gold or silver and very beautifully decorated.
In all shapes and sizes
From 800 BC on, people used these pins and in graves and other excavations, we find quite a lot of them. Experts can see from what period they originated since the shape and the size of the fibula were subject to fashion.
The first copy looked like an iron or bronze safety pin. There was a spring attached to a pin, that was as long as the upper part, that could be highly decorated, with animal heads, etc. The oldest copies that are found in Europe date from 800 BD.
The frog fibula (‘kikkerspeld’)
A famous copy decorated with the head of an animal is the ‘kikker speld’ of ‘frog fibula’, from 200-300 AD. It was used as a utensil but also as a piece of jewelry. On the back of the frog are two triangles, that once were filled with red enamel.
We miss the pin. The system of this variety is that there is a hinge where the pin is attached to a shaft at the top and the end of the pin and the hole is clamped in a pin holder at the bottom.
In the Middle East, this pin was made of gold and silver, a wider and higher upper part, which got smaller and lower at the end of the pin. I’ll bet that these fibulae from around the 6th century BC were owned by rich and famous people.
Back to Europe: when the Romans conquered part of Europe the soldiers wore them too and a lot of them are found and exhibited in museums. One of the most beautiful ones is the fibula from Dorestad/The Netherlands and the one found in Tongeren/ Belgium. Their shape is different from what is previously seen. There is a rather large highly decorated disk with a spring and pin behind it.
Then you had the ones with three buttons of crossbow fibula. They were specially designed for officers and high-ranked civil servants. You should close your coat with it. One of the buttons was centered in the middle and the other two formed the end of two arms. They date from the 3rd until the 6th century AD.
My favorite one is the so-called ‘bril fibula’ or translated in English ‘spectacles fibula’. In the 9th century, the Vikings came from Scandinavia, first to trade but later when they saw the richness of the country they tried to conquer it to get more taxes and profits than in trading would be possible.
The Vikings brought the shape of the Scandinavian brooch to the South. Instead of one disk, there were two, decorated with spirals, and the disks got together in the middle with a small piece of bronze. The spiral and the pin were at the back of it.
The Scandinavian Vikings were very talented to make golden and silver pieces of jewelry. For instance, they braided thick golden treads into bracelets and sturdy necklaces. But they also could make dainty chain necklaces or used golden coins to make jewelry. Their favorite decoration inspiration was animals.
These copies are beautiful but for daily use a bit heavy and too large to handle. Great for parties and in those days also great for offering to the gods. That is the reason we find quite some bril fibulae in the Netherlands.
The English varieties
Even in England, you find them, although the shape is slightly different, and also here you have many shapes and sizes. And to start with a difference… the English-speaking experts hardly speak about ‘fibula’, but use the word ‘brooch’ or ‘pin’.
That is not the only complicated thing about the English version of the brooch. They know three types of brooches: the annular brooch that is formed as a ring, then the penannular brooch which is formed as an incomplete ring (with an opening in the middle), and the pseudo-penannular brooch. That is a brooch with a complete ring, but the design has features of a penannular brooch. For instance, there are two terminals at the end of this brooch type.
The English brooches are also made of bronze, lovely decorated and every part of English has another style in brooches. There was a strict order in the way how to wear the fibula. The decorated part should be the lower part and the pin had to go straight up.
There was even an Irish law order that says that when you wear the pin going up and someone other than the bearer will get hurt by it, the bearer does not have to pay the damage. The pin-up is the way to go!
After the Middle Ages
When you might think that after the Middle Ages the fibula disappears from fashion, you are wrong. From the 16th-century on the high society ladies wore a brooch or fibula for decoration on their shoulders, but in the Netherlands, the brooch was used to keep the collar ends together.
History repeats itself.
The fibula is a great utensil and very practical to close coats or other garments and they replaced the straight pins that were used in the Neolithic and Bronze Age to close clothing. Fibulae were safer and more nicely decorated.
But inventions go on and on and the fibula was replaced by buttons in the Middle Ages, and by zippers in 1893 or safety pins in 1849.
The use of a fibula to close your coat or garments is finished, but the decorative function of the fibula still exists and I cannot imagine that there comes an end to wearing this beautiful piece of jewelry.
The pins from the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age find a follow-up by the lapel pins and the disk fibula became the brooch, as we know today.
But as earlier in this blog stated, the fibula is old, and the direct successor is the brooch or the lapel pin as we use them at the moment.
As old as Rome & as new as a baby
People in the past also call a brooch, in time, a pin, a lapel, or a fibula. All those items are used as clasps or fasteners to hold the clothing together. And from a functional addition to the garments, they become a decorative piece that men and women wear.
They are made in a way that they use it as the pin we see today or as a pendant or part of a crown. But the common people use their brooches to fasten the two parts of their coat or shawl.
Why is wearing a brooch so great
- Some women have problems with their neck, back, or shoulders and don’t wear a necklace easily. You pin a brooch on your dress or sweater and you look great. And there are also scarf brooches that you put over the knot of a scarf, just to look more beautiful.
- You wear a brooch on a belt or on a bandana, a clutch or a bag, on long gloves (on the wrists). And you pin some small matching ones on the collar of your jacket.
- It is the fashion to wear big scarves over your shoulders to keep you warm in winter. I wear a lot of them and all the time the two parts slip off my shoulders. When I wear a brooch, pinning the two parts together on one of my shoulders. It looks great and the scarf stays in place.
- When you wear a brooch, like in the ancient times, you wear this jewelry on your outer coat, near or on your collar. That is a lovely decoration of a rather plain colored coat. And also you can pin it on your hat or beret.
My tips &secrets to look stunning:
- When you wear an enormous brooch on your dress, it takes the attention from your face. It has to add beauty, not take over the attention of your beauty. Imagine that you wear a thin dress and you pin a heavy brooch on it, it starts hanging down, which does not look nice at all.
- It has to be complementary to your style and you have to be comfortable wearing it. Choose the one that matches with your clothing. Don’t buy a fashion pin, if that piece of jewelry does not match your clothing or your style.
- Don’t wear it just above your breast or too close to your collar. Better wear it halfway between the middle of your breast and the arm, and just below the top of your shoulders.
- It’s wise to have a stunning brooch for your casual outfit and for your formal dress. You wear it best when they are a contrast to the dress or sweater, you wear.
I hope that this blog post causes a trend in wearing brooches on your coat, shawl, or sweater, or maybe on your hat. The best is to pin it on a material that is not too fine, like silk.
Wearing jewelry is not only the emotion and memories of the person who gave us the jewelry, but we also want to look astonishing with it. Do you know what jewelry looks best on you? Do you know what jewelry accentuates your best features and maybe camouflages your minor ones?
FlorenceJewelshop published a brand new PDF with all the answers to the questions above, and much more. It is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send it to.
Florence of FlorenceJewelshop