Sanneke’s mysterious brooch

15 April 2020

Last Sunday, I was tagged twice in an interesting issue on Twitter. Someone mentioned ‘Kim knows a lot about mourning jewellery’ – I was all ears. Sanneke Blom shared pictures of a brooch she found in Groenlo (NL) when she was a 10-year old girl. Could it be a Victorian mourning brooch? I started looking for clues immediately.

Gold and black brooch from Gelderland (NL)

Examining jewellery by looking at photos is something I don’t usually do, but every now and then my enthusiasm and curiousness wins. 😉 This brooch spoke to me, I simply had to know more. Antique jewellery is like a puzzle. Mysterious objects with a story. But, what is their story? Did someone lose it or was it buried on purpose? Can we identify symbolism or clues which lead us to a certain religion? Did the original owner enjoy a high status? Sanneke Blom: “The canal in Groenlo (NL) is shaped like a star and was dredged in the 1930s. Whatever they found was thrown in a field next to it. I imagine someone lost this piece of jewellery while ice-skating on the canal. I found this brooch when I was a kid.”

The first bit of research

On the photos we can clearly see a gold, richly engraved brooch with a large black stone featuring three empty holes. On the back, the pin is missing. On the small hook of the pin are some faded hallmarks. Based on these hallmarks we could tell the age, the maker and the weight (carat) of the gold. Unfortunately, it’s barely legible. I called professional gemologist William Wold to have a look at the photos as well. He was surprised by the excellent state of the brooch. He told me that in the case of black glass, we would have seen several chips. William suspects the black stone is onyx – quite a tough material. You can identify onyx by shell-like fractures. It might be jet instead of onyx. To be completely sure, the stone should be examined professionally.

Dutch regional jewellery

My heart always skips a beat when seeing Dutch regional jewellery from the 19th- and early 20th-century. Superb craftsmanship: elegant engravings and refined filigree in mostly 14 and 18 carat gold. Plus, it usually gives a lot of information on the area the original owner lived in, if he or she enjoyed a high status and information on his or her religion. This particular brooch contains engravings I don’t recognise directly. It does look very sophisticated and shows good taste and lots of money. In original, antique catalogues by Dutch goldsmiths you can probably find similar designs. I know this is the sort of piece that was frequently made. You still see them around a lot at auction houses and in family inheritances. Based on the design I would say that this brooch was made somewhere between 1880 and 1910 in the Netherlands.

Mourning jewellery

The question remains: is it a mourning piece? For years I have collected sentimental and mourning jewellery and still do. I especially love the symbolism. In the case of this brooch, there’s a complete lack of symbolism. My guess is that the holes in the onyx (or jet) were originally filled with material. Portraits, diamonds, pearls (symbolizing tears), human hair or teeth. The kind of material you often see in English sentimental or mourning designs. If it really is a piece of Dutch regional jewellery, it probably contained glass beads, coral or garnets. I’m also missing references to a person, engraved in the brooch. We don’t see initials or a name, no date of death, no confirmed age, no bible verse. Unusual when it comes to a mourning piece. On the world wide web everyone seems to be an expert and jewellery with black details are often sold as mourning jewellery. I’d like to point out that this isn’t always the case.

Queen Victoria and her mourning jewellery

In the second half of the 19th-century, there was a high demand for mourning jewellery and jewellery with black details. Queen Victoria from England was the one who caused this popularity. After her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, she wore pioneering mourning jewellery. It didn’t take long for goldsmiths to jump on that train. Pieces with onyx, jet, glass, pearls, diamonds, quartz, human hair and teeth, portraits and paintings were made en masse to fulfil their clients wishes. Often, the jewellery was already created, waiting for their new owner. A widow of widower only had to choose one and add personal details to it. The jewellery wasn’t always worn to remember a loved one. For some, the designs with black details were a fashion statement.

Second opinion from Australia

I asked Hayden Peters from Art of Mourning to have a look at the brooch as well. He is a well-known expert in sentimental and mourning jewellery. He replied: “This is an unusual one, Kim!” The historian confirmed my suspicions and is leaning towards the housing of whatever was once placed inside the holes. It probably was removed later. He added that it perhaps was only a master and half finished, so it could be a sample. He likes the way the onyx is accommodated by the design. It’s uneven, so someone designed the brooch around that. This irregularity makes Hayden think it wasn’t a master after all. A mourning piece? He doesn’t think so either.

Preliminary conclusion

To me it seems unlikely this once was a mourning brooch. They’ve spared no expense to create this gold piece of jewellery. So why would you leave out the symbolism or the personal engraving? I’d like to think it’s a beautiful piece of Dutch traditional jewellery, made between 1880 and 1910 in the region of Gelderland. Craftsmanship of a Dutch goldsmith, possibly from Schoonhoven, who understood what was en vogue at the time in France and England. The brooch must have been owned by someone with good taste and enough money. A man or a woman? We know that Dutch men in the 19th century wore ‘man brooches’ near their neck on their ‘korsjak’ (sort of shirt with standing collar). Personally, I think this brooch was owned by a woman. Preferably worn on her chest: to show off or for practical use. I know, this is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I genuinely hope that Sanneke is able to identify the hallmarks and engravings for a more proper research. One big questions really keeps me busy: why are the holes in the stone empty? Perhaps it do was a mourning piece – an unfinished one. But what about the signs of use? My head keeps spinning.

Do you think you could solve this puzzle? Please, get in touch with me!