Those Little Bows: 18th-century Sevigne Jewelry

By Renee Corbino

A few weeks ago I was watching the Today Show and one of their segments was Hot Trends for Spring and hidden amongst lip oil and nail polish were purses decorated with bows.  I was immediately interested, as bows have been a popular part of fashion for centuries, and really aren’t anything new in the fashion world.  Especially popular in the 17th century, bow became fashionable clothing fasteners, brooches, and hair ornaments. On the auction market antique bow jewelry can sell for upwards of 1.5 million dollars, depending on their metal content silver or gold, the use of diamonds and other precious gemstones, and of course their age and maker.  For auction catalogers or researchers, bow jewelry seems relatively easy to describe, but has certain nuances making it not as straightforward as it seems.

Detail from a Portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa by Diego Velazquez

Detail from a Portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa by Diego Velazquez

The bow made its earliest appearance in jewelry in the 17th century. It is hypothesized that the use of bows as a jewelry form developed from the convention of securing jewelry to clothing with an elaborate fabric bow. The bow motif became extremely popular and all sorts of jewelry was made in this fashion including earrings, pendants, and brooches.  Because jewelry is also a commodity, so much of it has been melted down and reused throughout the centuries, so portraits are often our best resource for understanding jewelry designs and how it was worn on the body.  This detail from a portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa by Diego Valazquez from 1652-1653 shows the teenage Spanish princess wearing a large wearing a large bow brooch at her bust.

Brooch Design by Gilles Legare. Engraving 1663

Brooch Design by Gilles Legare. Engraving 1663

While there are many different forms of bow jewelry, a distinctive bow with drooping loops emerged in the mid part of the 17th century, thanks to designs by Gilles Legare. Legare was a French goldsmith who published Livre des Ouvrages d’Orfevrerie in 1666, a  compendium that included designs for rings, seals, hair ornaments, and brooches.  This particular form became known as Sevigne, after the French writer Madame de Sevigne known for her copious correspondence in the 18th century documenting important events in French history.  While these brooches sometimes featured stunning diamonds, blue paste stones were also very popular.  18th-century pieces modeled after Legare’s designs appear infrequently on the auction market, and when they do they command top prices.

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18th century paste Sevigne brooch. Sold at Christies on June 1, 2006 for $3,581

A similarly formed bow brooch called a Brandenburg was based on the fastenings of Prussian military uniforms and this small compact form became popular towards the end of the 17th century.  While it is extremely similar, the Brandenburg should not be confused with the Sevigne because it is more compact and horizontal, without the distinctive drooping loops of the Sevigne.  Another distinctive bow brooch was a round compacted inter-looping of ribbons. These small brooches were also extremely popular in the 17th century. While they are visually similar, these types of brooches are not the same as the sevigne.

Bow Necklace. c.1660. Victoria and Albert Museum

Brandenberg Necklace. c.1660. Victoria and Albert Muse

The bow brooch continued to be fashionable well into the 19th century and early 20th centuries, with designers like Cartier and Kramer encrusting bow forms with exquisite diamonds, catering to the wealthy of the Gilded Age.  While these prices are well out of the range of most consumers, bow jewelry continues to be popular at all levels, and some exquisite pieces can even be had for under $1000.

Onxy and Diamond Bow Brooch, Cartier. c.1910. Sold for $66,000

Onxy and Diamond Bow Brooch, Cartier. c.1910. Sold for $66,000

From an auction or identification perspective, the term sevigne is sometimes used to describe this form of brooch in the larger houses such as Christies or Sothebys, but bow brooch is a more common descriptive term across the board.  The term Brandenburg is almost never used; in fact I could not find a single use of it on the auction market.  As an auction cataloger or researcher looking to describe this type of item for the auction or retail market, the best way to maximize your exposure is to use the term “bow brooch,” but don’t hesitate to use Sevigne in the description to show that you are aware of the proper terminology of these little bows. To make sure that you catch the eye of your consumer, the most common term should be used.

While the bow design may be experiencing a renewed popularity on trendy purses, shoes, headbands and dresses, its important to understand where these design forms came from. Originally conceived to hold jewelry to clothing, these bows became decorative objects themselves, transforming into intricate metal and jewel work that twisted and flowed like the fabric they were based on.  While the trends of today will pass, it is the original bow jewelry that is timeless and elegant, and deserving of the high prices paid for them at auction.  Investing in top quality exquisite bow jewelry makes a bold statement and ensures that that you’ll always be in style.

As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!


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About Renee Corbino
Renee Corbino has a decade of experience in the auction industry. Her expertise covers a broad spectrum of fine and decorative arts and antiques including: paintings, silver, ceramics, furniture, netsuke and more. She received her Bachelor’s degree with a double major in classical studies & art history from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master of Decorative Arts from the Smithsonian & George Mason University.

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