This brooch is in the form of a Chinese Fingernail Guard. It is made of silver git and is encrusted in precious and semi-precious cabochon stones of ruby, emerald, amethyst, jade with a blister pearl and highlights of enamelling. It is from the 1920s. I bought it at auction and it came in its very own silk box.
Chinese fingernail guards come from the time of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912). Long fingernails were a sign of power and beauty, both men and women of the nobility wore their nails long. They were a sign of the wearer’s ability to rely on servants to perform all manual tasks. Usually they were worn on the little finger and the ring finger. During the Qing dynasty rulers pursued a life of great luxury and noble ladies would take great care to emphasise their nails wearing nail guards to protect them. It is known the Dowager Empress Cixis (1835 to 1908) had nails up to six inches long.

A portrait of the Dowager Empress Cixis 1905 by Huber Vos

Fingernail guards were usually made of gold, silver, bronze, or gilded metal, and embedded with pearls, precious stones or kingfisher feathers (known as Tian-tsui “dotting with kingfishers”.  The Chinese have been using the iridescent blue feathers of kingfisher birds for over 2,000 years as an inlay on fine art objects).  They would also have motifs and symbols such as the endless knot, symbolising a long and prosperous life, or bats and coins, symbols of good luck and wealth.

Long fingernails go back a long way in China.  As early as 3000 BC they were a sign of status and power.  Chinese high-born ladies used coloured lacquer both to colour and strengthen their nails. During the Zhou dynasty (1050–771 BC)  Chinese royalty used gold and silver to enhance their nails and in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) red and black became the colours of choice with red signifying the highest status.

As a person who never manages to grow long nails, too much gardening is my excuse, it is clear I am not cut out to be a high-status person.

Look out for next month’s Brooch of the Month, by Harriet Glen.