Brooches 05.09.2011

Revisiting a Pearl and Blue Glass/Enamel Brooch: How Trade Opened Up New Possibilities in the 18th Century

There are so many ways with which to understand a jewel and place it in its context. Let’s look again at this brooch and see what we can find…

I’ve often made mention that one of the most prolific periods for jewellery experimentation in design came about during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This isn’t to discredit earlier or more modern periods, but there are simply moments in history when socially, culturally, financially and politically, a particular movement flourishes. It is during this time that a confluence of factors caused the outcome of experimentation and styles in jewellery, or at least, a mainstream cultural identity, be it Prussian, British, American or Italian, emerged with styles that started are clearly recognisable. Much of this has to do with higher production levels, greater social access to wealth/cultural mobility and advanced transit and communications, which not only broke down established borders, but upheld cultural uniqueness within different geographic parameters. Such as Continental travel had opened up for a society that now could focus on recreation and through this simple means, culture started to transcend borders that were traditionally drawn politically and culturally.

Blue Pearl Brooch

Forgive the long winded preamble, but now we can look at this wonderful brooch and how its style fits directly into these paradigms. The first thing to note is the excellent use of the variety of pearls, which for this style, as you will see in further examples, simply shows two things has occurred;

  1. There was a greater access to pearls through higher trade routes to the East (China and Japan) for potential use as a material and
  2. Styles has started to embrace material over classical depictions, a shift away from the obvious Neoclassical ideal.

The brooch is set on blue, foil-backed glass, in the same style as contemporary miniature portraits, so the method still remains adapted and not wholly unique to this particular style of brooch. For this manner of construction, often the most common type was to set the pearls on ‘a base of mother-of-pearl, gesso or plaster laid onto a background of blue enamel or blue glass and set under a domed glass cover.’

As for the style itself, using pearls on blue glass or enamel to depict Neoclassical scenes and symbolism was quite popular throughout the Continent and England. Particularly, this style can be found in pieces ranging from c.1790-1820 from the northern region of France and what is today Germany. Allegorical scenes, often transcending the ecclesiastical undercurrent of many painted Neoclassical scenes, are quite prevalent, focusing directly on the personal love sentiment instead. This is due to regional style, contemporary culture and religious influence in the art directly.

This style of pearls on blue glass or enamel is used heavily in sentimental jewels and can be seen in these further examples from the British Museum:


“Oval gold brooch with seed-pearls, in the form of a winged cupid with a lamb, on a base of mother-of-pearl, gesso or plaster; laid onto a background of blue enamel or blue glass and set under a domed glass cover in a gold mount within a pearl border. Inscribed in French.”


“Marquise-shaped pendant with seed-pearls, in the form of sheep and lambs under a tree, on a base of mother-of-pearl, gesso or plaster laid onto a background of blue enamel or blue glass and set under a domed glass cover in a gold mount with blue and white enamel and a tooled gold border. Compartment on reverse with plaited hair under glass.”


“Gold finger-ring with seed-pearls, in the form of a spray of flowers, on a base of mother-of-pearl, gesso or plaster; laid onto a background of blue enamel or blue glass under a domed glass cover in a gold mounted oval-shaped bezel with a pearl border.”


“Marquise-shaped pendant with seed-pearls, in the form of two birds carrying a knotted ribbon, flowers and wheat-ears, on a base of mother-of-pearl, gesso or plaster, laid onto a background of blue enamel or blue glass and set under a domed glass cover in a silver mount with a gold backing, with a border of pastes set in silver and a tooled gold inner rim.”

Blue Pearl Brooch

Upon the back of this brooch, we have a magnificent inscription that is quite personal for a dedication:

‘This Brooch was occasionally
worn for more than 40 years by James Saunders Esq who died on the
24th September, 1831 in the 79th year of his Age’

To state that a jewel was worn be a gentleman is firstly unusual (rather than directly dedicated to) and then there is the statement of the brooch being ‘occasionally worn’. From here, we move into supposition about the wearer. Why did he wear it? Was this a dedication for someone else or a personal sentiment? Who received the brooch after his passing to inscribe this upon it? Some wonderful questions that may never be answered, but fascinating ones all the same.

I have a few examples of this style in my collection, so when I finally get them out and properly photographed, I’ll continue the look at the pearl/blue phenomenon!

Courtesy: Penny Rushby-Smith