A New Look At Old Bar Pins

Getting to Know The Bangkok Fair

Look through any American jewelry trade catalog from 1880 to 1941 and you’ll see one or more variations on the popular bar pin. Look through several decades’ worth of catalogs and you’ll see how these narrow, elongated brooches evolved. You’ll also realize that many of the styles, decorative elements, materials, and manufacturing techniques were around longer than you ever suspected.

Catalogs from the 1880s show mostly gold and gold-filled (called “rolled gold plate”) “lace pins” and “shawl pins,” which were usually die-stamped and engraved. Sometimes a small cameo or some black enamel tracery (taille d’épargne enamel) was added. Catalogs from the period also display selections of gold bar pins featuring wire-twist and bead decoration in the Etruscan Revival style, a carryover from a style that had been popular during previous decades. Motifs such as crescents, shamrocks, horseshoes, arrows, love knots, forget-me-nots, birds, and butterflies began showing up in the early 1880s and remained popular for two decades. By the mid-1880s, motifs inspired by Japanese decorative arts had become part of American manufacturers’ repertoires. The Bloomingdale’s catalog of 1886 pictures silver bar pins with images of geisha girls (called “Mikado pattern”) as well as Japanese fans and swords, illustrating how Japanese influence pervaded the Western world in the 1880s.

“Rolled plate,” “rolled gold,” and “gold front” bar pins were advertised in the catalogs of the 1880s and ’90s alongside their solid gold counterparts, stamped and engraved with identical or similar patterns. These offered women of modest means the look of solid gold without the expense.

A few more novelty items were introduced in the 1890s, in the shapes of keys, scissors, and mother-of-pearl hands. The hand motif is found throughout the 1800s, but “white pearl” (mother-of-pearl) hand brooches seem to date from the latter part of the century.

The gold elongated crescent pin set with gems or pearls (or both) shows up in a 1901 catalog from Daniel Low and Co. of Salem, Mass. This item persisted for more than two decades—it’s included in a 1923 catalog from J. R. Wood & Sons of New York—in a range of sizes and with various gemstones, mostly rubies or sapphires. C.D. Peacock of Chicago called them “harvest moon pins” in 1914. Several Newark, N.J., manufacturers made them, including Bippart, Griscom & Osborne as well as Krementz. Some jewelry historians have written that seed pearl jewelry was popular from 1840 to 1850, but recent evidence suggests it was available both before and after that time. The practice of stringing tiny pearls on horsehair and mounting them on cutout mother-of-pearl plaques began early in the 19th century in England, but it lasted longer in the United States, primarily as bridal jewelry.

Other metals. By the 1920s, bar pins in the open, lacy filigree style most often referred to as Edwardian were being made in all-platinum, platinum-topped yellow gold, all white gold, platinum-topped white gold, white gold filled, and sterling silver.

Even though Great Britain’s Edward VII reigned for only nine years (1901-1910), the look that bears his name continued through the 1930s. Even as late as 1941, a die-stamped white gold filigree bar pin set with a small diamond was advertised by wholesalers L. & C. Mayers Co. of New York. The proportions of 1930s bar pins changed somewhat from those of the 1920s, becoming shorter from end to end but wider from top to bottom. Some historians have called these 1930s pieces Edwardian Revival, but in fact, the style never died. It continued to be produced through the first four decades of the 20th century for the simple reason that it kept selling. The reason for the variation in metals was also simple: economics. Those who could afford platinum bought platinum. Those who couldn’t bought the same look in platinum-topped gold, white gold, or sterling silver (see p. 91).

Circa-dating. A piece of jewelry can’t always be pigeonholed by a precise date. For example, you might see a patent date or number stamped on a piece, which establishes the earliest date it could have been made. But keep in mind that patents were valid for 14 to 17 years, so the piece could have been made much later than the year of the patent’s issue.

Historians tend to ascribe earlier “circa” dates to pieces that might have been produced over a longer period than they realize. But there’s also evidence of the opposite. For example, styles of bar pins generally associated with the 1920s—flat, geometric, with pavé-set stones in strong contrasting colors and no openwork—are shown in a 1914 catalog from E.M. Gattle, a reminder that the style called art deco began evolving before World War I.

Other catalogs, from mass-producing wholesale manufacturers, don’t show this style before the 1920s. But Gattle was a high-end jeweler, so it makes sense that it would offer cutting-edge styles. Antique jewelry appraiser Peter Shemonsky calls the progression of styles from the high end to mass production the “trickle-down effect.” It explains why forms with similar styles and ornamentation continued to be made, and why they continued to sell for such a long time. There’s a “bell curve” to every style or trend. Even as new styles are introduced and others reach their peak of popularity, there are still those who continue to buy and wear older ones.

Christie Romero is an antique and period jewelry historian, lecturer, and consultant, and the author of Warman’s Jewelry (2nd ed., Warman Publishing Co., 1998).

The author thanks Karen Lorene, owner of Facèré Jewelry Art in Seattle, and Peter Shemonsky for their contributions to this article.

The Look of White Metal

Some historians have a theory about the dating of white metal use, based on the practice of backing platinum pieces with gold, a holdover from the traditional practice of backing silver with gold. (Silver was backed because it’s soft and prone to tarnish. Platinum, which is neither, was backed simply because jewelers are tradition-bound—or so the theory claims.) Platinum was cheaper than gold until about 1900, but by 1915, it was more expensive. At that point, according to the theory, platinum was backed with gold for a purely economic reason—in this way, platinum could be used in relatively inexpensive items as a thin top layer over yellow gold, retaining the period look.

Another ingredient was injected into the mix right after World War I: white gold. Before the war, a workable alloy for white gold had yet to be formulated. A German patented a ternary (three-part) alloy in 1915. An American company, the Belais Brothers, introduced its formula in 1917. It proved successful, mainly because it was a less expensive substitute for platinum, whose price had risen considerably in the first decades of this century. Wartime use of platinum and restrictions on its use for jewelry also hastened the development of white gold as a substitute.