The first thing to say about this brooch is that it is rather large, measuring 11 x 9 cm. The second thing is that it really isn’t a brooch at all. I found it tucked at the back of a dusty display cabinet in an antiques shop in Lewes. Lewes is a small town in the South of England whose origins stretch back to Anglo Saxon times, and was probably founded in the sixth century. Today it is the bustling county town of East Sussex with a number of antique shops. The ‘brooch’ was bent, broken and had several missing stones. It was also backed in a fine silk net which was disintegrating and as I picked it up fine threads fell into my hands. So why was I interested in such a tatty object? Well, because of its age. It was a piece of Georgian fashion jewellery. Georgian jewellery is becoming highly sought after, I have often been out bid at an auction. So, to find this hidden treasure was a real thrill. I quickly decided it was quite beyond my abilities to repair, so I sent it off to a specialist jeweller I know in London. They are an old family business and have been repairing jewellery since 1875. Their skilled workshop found replacement stones, mended the breaks and added a silver brooch pin. I can now wear it, it looks magnificent on a black jumper, it still is a little bent but I think that is part of its charm and character.
I believe my brooch started life out as a part of a Georgian stomacher decoration. A stomacher is usually a triangular panel fitted into the front of a woman’s dress. They date back as far as the 15th century and have gone in and out of fashion over the centuries. My favourite museum, the V&A, has a number of stomachers in its collection. The stomacher below is dated 1730-1750, probably English and made of silk and linen and hand embroidered, currently not on display at the museum. But I am pleased to say the V&A has an excellent online catalogue you can search anytime.
Stomacher jewellery, also known as devant de corsage, is a piece of jewellery worn on or as stomacher. From the start these central panels (stomachers) have been decorated with pearls, precious stones and gold and silver wire embroidery. Because a stomacher was detachable it was relatively easy to change, enhance and decorate these panels. Their heyday for decoration and extravagance was the late 18th century to the early 20th century. They were mainly worn on ballgowns or ceremonial costumes. As the level of decoration increased in both size and weight they could only be worn on gowns with corsets.
Again at the V&A there are some magnificent examples of stomacher jewellery in the jewellery collection. This one is from Spain dating circa 1700-1720 made of gold with diamonds. It was purchased by the V&A in 1870 from the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Pillar, Zaragoza.
On the left is the Countess of Dartmouth wearing a three-piece stomacher over ceremonial robes 1757 by Joshua Reynolds and on the right is Princess (later queen) Mary wearing a three-piece stomacher (1901)
My stomacher brooch, in its original state, would have been sewn onto a bodice. It may not be made of diamonds but in the soft light of hundreds of candles at a ball or supper party, it would have shone. I am sure the elegant lady wearing it would have looked resplendent.
Look out for next month’s Brooch of the Month – a dramatic modernist piece by contemporary design Daphne Krinos.