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Buckle Jewelry

Image: Portrait of a Lady with a Fan by Albert de Keyser (1829-1890). Sold at Bonhams, 19 March 2013.

History Lessons

buckle jewelryHow a Medieval club sparked a jewelry trend.

For centuries, buckles were for belts (and sometimes shoes), until the Victorians got a hold of the idea.

Before we get to jewelry, let's talk a bit about buckles. First: they are ancient. The first buckles were used in the Roman military to strap armor together. The word "buckle" comes from the Latin buccula, which refers to the clasp that's used to attach two ends. The very earliest were purely functional, but soon evolved as an important way to convey an officer's rank and status.

Late Roman gold belt buckle found as part of a hoard of late-Roman gold jewelry near Thetford, Norfolk in 1979. The British Museum.

Late Roman gold belt buckle found as part of a hoard of...

Detail of a jeweled gold belt around the waist of Katharina Merian attributed to Hans Brosamer, ca 1540.

Detail of a jeweled gold belt around the waist of Katharina Merian...

During the Middle Ages, the buckle was used primarily as a decorative detail. And until the 15th century, they were worn almost exclusively by the very wealthy. It wasn't until post-15th century manufacturing techniques (moulds!) that they were accessible for the general population.

This young Connecticut merchant is wearing the very latest in British fashions. Since it was no longer the fashion for men to wear jewelry, all their glitz was focused on their buttons, and the all-important shoe buckle. Elijah Boardman, Ralph Earl, 1789. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This young Connecticut merchant is wearing the very latest in British fashions....

Let's jump to the 18th century, when all you needed to know about a man could be gleaned from a single glance at a his shoe buckle. This was one item of jewelry worn by both men and women, and it remained in fashion for nearly the entire century. Over-the-top fashions fell out of favor after the French Revolution, so at that point fancy shoe buckles quickly got less fancy. (For a deeper dive into shoe buckles, check out the history lesson on cut steel.)

A big buckle was de rigueur in the 1830s.  Countess Julie von Woyna by Friedrich von Amerling, 1832.

A big buckle was de rigueur for much of the 19th century...

In 1859, the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada added a vast amount of silver to the world market, and by a decade later the wearing of silver was thought to be very fashionable - especially in the daytime. Mrs. Phelps is in a sporty outfit with her boating hat, but the openwork belt buckle adds some elegance to the look.  Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent, 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1859, the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada added a...

Then in the early 19th century, a woman's outfit wasn't complete until the belt at her waist was cinched with a buckle (extra points if your other jewelry matched your buckle). As the century progressed buckles moved from functional belts to jewelry. It suddenly seemed as if buckle rings and bracelets were everywhere. To understand why, we have to rewind to 1348.

This was when King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter. According to the legend, the King was dancing with Joan, Countess of Salisbury when one of her garters slipped off her leg, the King picked it up, placed it on his own leg and said "Honi soit qui mal y pense" to the giggling onlookers. The phrase which means "shame on him who thinks evil of it" became the motto of his new chivalric order.

(For you trivia nerds: Joan would later become King Edward II's daughter-in-law. After her first husband died, she married the Prince of Wales. And when she was 41 years old, gave birth to the next king, Richard II. Let's hear it for later motherhood! )

A romanticized depiction of the first Garter Ceremony. Illustration depicting the Black Prince being invested with the Order of the Garter by King Edward III. Illustration from Childrens Stories from English History, 1910. Royal Collection Trust.

Illustration depicting the Black Prince being invested with the Order of the...

The patron saint of the order is St. George and they spiritual home is St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Every knight is required to display a banner of his arms in the chapel. This view from the Altar in St George's Chapel shows the Garter Knights' banners above the stalls. The Royal Collection Trust.

The patron saint of the order is St. George and they spiritual...

If you're still waiting for the buckle connection, just know that a Medieval garter was often simply a piece of leather or cloth tied fastened with a buckle. Both men and women wore stockings. And since this was well before the days of elastic, both men and women wore garters. (At the Order of Garter ceremony where new knights are installed, men have a garter placed on their leg (ladies have it placed on their left arm).

This was gifted to Prince Albert by Queen Victoria two days before their wedding. Garter of diamonds on dark blue velvet, 1840. Royal Collection Trust.

This was gifted to Prince Albert by Queen Victoria two days before...

So in 1348, the King was looking for a way to cement power and position and an ultra-exclusive club (which had an Knights-of-the-Round table quality about it) seemed like just the way to do it. He was right (which may be why it's still in existence today).

Queen Elizabeth wearing the Garter star. The palace released this previously unseen photo of Queen Elizabeth II on the first anniversary of her death. The photo was taken by Cecil Beaton on October 16, 1968. Royal Collection Trust.

Queen Elizabeth wearing the Garter star. The palace released this previously unseen...

The Order of Garter Star is worn pinned to the left breast and was introduced in the 17th century by King Charles I. The blue garter is the part of the device that features the buckle and is the symbol of the order. Royal Collection Trust.

The Order of Garter Star is worn pinned to the left breast...

Membership was (and still is) limited to twenty-four: twelve knight companion for the King and twelve for the Prince of Wales (but the royal family and "extra" foreign monarchs don't count). The current roster includes former politicians, military officers, ambassadors and the like. In June, the members celebrate Garter Day, they all meet at Windsor Castle, wearing their robes, induct new members (give them robes) and have lunch.

Portrait of Teresa Wieden by Ramon Martí i Alsina, 1887. Museu Nacional D'Art De Catalunya.

Portrait of Teresa Wieden by Ramon Martí i Alsina, 1887. Museu Nacional...

 María del Carmen Hernández Espinosa de los Monteros by Federico de Madrazo, 1876. Museo del Prado.

Buckle bracelet detail. María del Carmen Hernández Espinosa de los Monteros by...

So where did all those Victorian buckle bracelets come from? Victorian England was a time of great change: there was a travel revolution with the invention of steamboats and travels. A communication revolution: the invention of the transatlantic cable. And there was a class revolution: A rising middle class coupled with the Industrial Revolution’s class of nouveau riche, meant that the very fabric of society was changing. One of the ways that the Victorians dealt with these societal changes was to create a strict code of etiquette and manners: a Victorian honor code.

Buckle bracelet with turquoise detail. Retrato de una dama by Antonio María Esquivel, 1850.

Buckle bracelet with turquoise detail. Retrato de una dama by Antonio María...

Buckle worn on a velvet ribbon. Portrait of Sophia Alexandrovna Radziwill by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Buckle worn on a velvet ribbon. Portrait of Sophia Alexandrovna Radziwill by...

Some of that Victorian honor code was devised by looking toward the past. They were enamored by the concept of medieval chivalry. The Order of the Garter fit the bill perfectly and the garter/buckle motif became a reminder of what chivalry entailed: loyalty, fidelity, protection.

Queen Victoria wore a buckle ring to symbolize her membership in the Order of the Garter. And the trend for buckle jewelry took off. The circular shape of the belt and buckle evoked infinity and when gifted, represented a binding love.

Detail of a buckle bracelet wore as part of mourning attire. From a portrait by Leopold Loeffler, 1851. National Museum in Krakow.

Detail of a buckle bracelet wore as part of mourning attire. From...

Detail of a buckle bracelet. Jane Cederlund by Amalia Lindegren, 1869. National Museum Stockholm.

Detail of a buckle bracelet. Jane Cederlund by Amalia Lindegren, 1869. National...

And if Victorians needed another incentive, The buckle was also deemed appropriate for mourning jewelry as it was seen to represent a metaphorical connection between two people. Buckle jewelry was often designed to hold a plait of a loved one's hair to further cement the connection.

Mrs. Sarah Adler by Charles Christian Nahl, 1861. de Young Museum, San Francisco.

In black mourning attire, with a buckle bracelet, Mrs. Sarah Adler by...

The fashion for buckle jewelry caught on throughout Europe. After all, most European royalty was in the Order. And it's been a thing ever since. Throughout the twentieth century, it remained a jewelry staple but would get styled to fit the prevailing decorative period. (Art Deco buckle bracelet, Art Nouveau buckle ring.. and so on.)