NEW YORK – Jewelry is highly personal. Yellow gold or rose gold? Big and bold or smaller and classic? Certain themes in decoration however hold universal appeal and birds certainly seem to fit that bill (pun unintended). Wonderful examples of bird brooches have been crafted in every imaginable medium from diamonds and gold to enamel and sterling silver. Nearly every major designer and jewelry maker has incorporated birds into its brooches and pins from Tiffany’s iconic “Bird on a Rock” brooches to Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.
Topping the list of famous women who have pinned themselves with birds is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose jewelry-box diplomacy brooch collection (each pin had a subtle or not-so-subtle meaning) included a peace dove pin in yellow gold given to her by Leah Rabin, widow of Israeli Prime Minister, who was slain in 1995. She reportedly wore this pin each time she gave a speech in the Middle East. Albright also had a circa 1890 diamond and eagle pin, made in France, which she wore to her swearing-in ceremony.
Another brooch holding great political meaning was a caged bird brooch designed by Jeanne Toussaint in 1942 for Cartier when she was the firm’s director of fine jewelry. She designed the piece with a caged bird representing the citizens of occupied France. Later versions made after World War II ended had the cage with an open door and the bird about to fly, signifying hope and freedom.
“Brooches designed as a bird or featuring bird motifs have been found in jewelry for centuries and from all cultures/areas of the world,” says jewelry specialist M. Elise Coronado, GIA G.G., director of Jewelry at Michaan’s Auctions in Alameda, Calif. “You can find examples of beads designed as birds from the Mesopotamian, ancient Egyptian and ancient Roman periods as well as many others. The Art Nouveau era in the early 1900s was commonly associated with floral and natural motifs, such as birds, and while you can find quite a few examples from Louis Comfort Tiffany, Rene Lalique and other designers of birds during this time, that was common for the period,” she said, noting that bird and natural motifs dominated this era.
Older variations of jewelry can often be linked to religious reasons for the design and importance, for example, the Georgian Saint Esprit brooch depicts a dove in flight, a known embodiment of the Christian Holy Spirit, Coronado explained.
Meanings and symbolism will vary from culture to culture. “Native Americans often used the Thunderbird as a common jewelry motif and this was considered a sacred spirit bird that divides the heavens from the earth. In Chinese culture, the phoenix, or Fenghuang, is used often in jewelry or jade carvings and has quite a few different meanings but can often symbolize yin and yang.”
As jewelry evolved over the decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, more designers, especially those of luxury designer brands, would incorporate flora fauna designs into their work (not only for cultural significance but also for aesthetically pleasing reasons) such as Jean Schlumberger’s Bird on a Rock for Tiffany & Co. “The importance of this brooch was that he designed it to house the Tiffany yellow diamond (the same one Lady Gaga was just photographed wearing at the Oscars),” she said. “The design became so wildly popular that Tiffany began featuring stones such as blue topaz, kunzite and others in the mounting and retailing them. Van Cleef & Arpels is also known for creating bird brooches, they tend to create beautifully whimsical pieces of smaller birds such as a hummingbird.”
Many collectors are drawn to bird designs because of their rarity from the specific artist. High-end designers such Schlumberger for Tiffany, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Rene Lalique, VCA, Cartier, JAR, Verdura, etc. aren’t going to mass-produce these types of collections, therefore, they become more desirable and as they age, can be harder to find, Coronado says. The type, size and quality of gemstones used in antique pieces all play a part in establishing a brooch’s value. Particularly true for renowned designers like Schlumberger, collectors will also look for how rare a piece is, if it was a one-off or one of only a few made.
From whimsical hummingbirds to fanciful parrots and peacocks, birds continue today to be a popular motif in brooches from antique and vintage examples to contemporary designs.