Pravu Mazumdar
Edited by:
Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture
Edited at:
Edited on:
Daniel Kruger. Brooch: Untitled, 1996. Pearls, rubies gold.. 5 x 6.5 x 2 cm. Photo by: Udo W Beier. Daniel Kruger
Brooch: Untitled, 1996
Pearls, rubies gold.
5 x 6.5 x 2 cm
Photo by: Udo W Beier
© By the author. Read Copyright.

The following text is based on an essay of the same title in "100 Brooches. Korean Contemporary Jewellery Chronicle", edited by Dongchun Lee and published in August 2020 under the patronage of the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture". The book is not only an extraordinary history of contemporary Korean jewellery, depicted through the brooch form, but also an effort at understanding what a brooch is and does.
As a start, I would like to imagine a long take in the course of a film, the camera focussing on an image (1) against a dark brown background with a felt-like texture. The image unfolds in the foreground as a bouquet of what looks like a cluster of sixteen luminous, cream-colored and uneven teeth or pearls strung on a nest-like structure of golden twigs with large, quadrilateral loops. Two points of the structure are marked red, as if to single out two specific locations on a map. A closer look reveals each of them as a confluence of twigs studded with a red, flat, truncated tetrahedron. The camera moves a step backward to reveal more of the background, letting the image recede into the distance, and comes to rest again. But all on a sudden, the backdrop itself jerks into motion like Sindbad’s island as it turned out to be a whale, receding as the camera continues to rest, and executing from time to time a sideward movement, flitting in and out of the frame. We begin to see the contours of a body and realise that what we initially took to be a passe-partout with an image mounted on it, is in reality a dress with a brooch pinned onto it.
The sudden gesture of a backdrop in motion makes us aware of two elementary differences at the same time: the general difference between jewellery and other visual arts, and the particular difference between the brooch (2) and other types of jewellery. Contrary to painting, stucco, relief, sculpture and of course cinematic art, all of which stand out against a static environment like a wall, a ceiling, a pillar, a screen, the space of a building or a street crossing, jewellery attaches itself to an animal organism like a human body and participates in its mobility. At the same time, contrary to other kinds of jewellery elements like earrings, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings, all of which emphasize specific limbs or organs, the brooch simply requires the surface or façade of the wearer’s body, transforming it into what a backdrop is for painting. Gottfried Semper reserved in his seminal work – one of the earliest modern attempts at defining jewellery (3) – a special category for brooches and diadems, depicting them as directional jewellery (for their capacity to distinguish between the back and the front sides of the body with respect to its movement), as opposed to macrocosmic jewellery (like earrings, endowed with a movement related to but not totally determined by that of the body) and microcosmic jewellery (like rings, bracelets, anklets, each of which encircles a centre in the microcosmic depth of the wearer’s body).

Unlike gadgets like laptops and microwaves, which are recent innovations, jewellery has an ancient origin, lost in the primordial mist of prehistoric art. Like all jewellery forms, the brooch can be perceived as an archaeological layering of whatever it has been in the different phases of its long evolution. But unlike the other jewellery forms, the brooch requires a “second skin”, the dress (or the hat), in order to withstand gravity and remain on the body of the wearer. Besides the dress, it also requires a pin that can pierce through the fabric. An earring might also require a pin for piercing through the ear lobes and fastening it. But contrary to the earring, the brooch includes a pin, which is, historically speaking, inseparable from it. Even the term brooch, which goes back to the Latin brocchus, the Old French broche and the Middle English broach, has a multi-layered meaning in these older forms, including not only the ornamental pin, but also any pointed implement like a lance, a spear or even a spit for roasting meat.
Roman crossbow fibula: 4th century A.D. Bronze. 5.1 x 7.6 cm


Fibula with projecting flanges, particularly associated with Northern Greece: 5th–4th century B.C. Silver

In its genealogical origin, the object we call a brooch was in fact nothing other than a pin or fibula. Whereas the pin of the brooch is used to fix only the brooch on the dress, the fibula had a dual function. It was used to fix itself on a dress, as well as to fix the garment itself by wrapping it around the body, letting its two ends overlap, and pinning the overlapping surfaces. In the late Bronze Age, the fibula looked like a violin bow or a high, rounded arch, or it assumed the shape of flat, horizontal spirals. But even the earliest forms of the fibula were not only meant to enable the fastening of a garment draped around a body. In addition to their function, they also had a form replete with symbolic meaning. The evolution of the fibula into the brooch involves a process, in which the function of fastening a dress vanishes entirely, leaving behind a “pure” form. The brooch is thus a form fastened onto a garment with the aid of a pin that can be regarded as an archaeological remnant of the fibula.
The transition of the fibula into the brooch thus involves the transformation of a symbolically modified gadget into an image, so that the brooch is not only to be regarded as an archaeological layering of forms and functions but also as a stratification of values. We remember Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction between the use-value of things and the use-value of images (4). For the use-value of the premodern image, Benjamin reserves the term cult value, which refers to the magical function of premodern symbols. For the use-value of the modern image, he uses the term exhibition value. The transformation of the premodern image into the image in the “age of its technical reproducibility” can thus be depicted as a transition from the cult value of the archaic image to the exhibition value of the modern image (5). The cult value enables the premodern image to continue to exist as a force, even when its form is invisible, as in the case of an amulet. By contrast, the modern image can only exist as long as it is on display. This is an immediate outcome of its exhibition value.

The brooch can thus be regarded as a complex stratification of these three types of value. As it emerges from the fibula, the use-value of the fibula as a gadget and the cult value of the archaic fibula as a symbolically loaded form both give way to the exhibition value of the brooch, which only exists as long as it is on display. The modern brooch retains the fibula in its genealogical depth. On the surface, it is neither magic nor an implement at the service of the second skin that protects us from the vicissitudes of the weather, but rather an element of a third skin: a social skin constructed by fashion, cosmetics, jewellery, as an “unleashed surface” intended to generate the illusion of identity (6).

As with all jewellery: When the brooch is displayed on a body, the wearer is also on display. For the brooch formulates what the wearer is or expects to be or is expected to be, evoking responses thereby from the environment. In a very specific sense, the brooch has an affinity with the mask. As a patch of identity slapped onto the façade of the wearer, it can be seen as a mask that slipped from the face, got caught up in its free fall, and came to rest somewhere on the collar bone or the chest of the wearer. Thus, unfolding its existence between the prehistoric fog of its origin in the fibula and the mask as its destiny, the brooch functions like a half-mask. Without covering the face, it can radically transform the way a wearer is seen and experienced, which the mask also does, but by covering the face.
But the question that can no longer be averted, is: what is the actual content that is displayed by a brooch when it is worn and the wearer is on display? Contemporary jewellery reveals a wide range of possible answers to this question.

Therese Hilbert. Brooch: Volcano, 1996. Silver blackened. Ø 5,4 cm, d. 2,9 cm.
Photo by: Otto Künzli

A brooch can be an expression of the tectonic shifts and volcanic blasts under the surface of what looks like a pacified, bourgeois existence in daily life. Therese Hilbert has spelt out a volcanological language of the human soul in brooches crafted over a period of almost two and a half decades and meant to express a transcendence that is within us and yet beyond our control.
Kirsten Haydon. Brooch: Ice Fast, 2009. Enamel, photo transfer, reflector beads, copper, silver, steel. 7.5 x 12 cm.
Photo by: Jeremy Dillon

Another example are the Antarctica-brooches by Kirsten Haydon, overlaid with reflector beads for simulating the vastness of the Antarctic ice and documenting a personal experience of nature at the limits of human existence.

Bogki Min. Brooch: Folds of Fallen Leaves, 2020. Gold plated silver

On an entirely different plane, Bogki Min explores in some of his latest brooches in the series, Dancing Monad, the Leibnizian conception of a folded soul, a folded matter, and, in particular, the interface between the two, which is nothing other than the brooch itself.

A brooch can also have a performative dimension that lets it express what the wearer actually does through the sheer act of wearing it.

Otto Künzli. Pin: The Red Dot, 1980. Drawing pin, rubber. ø 0.9 cm

This is the case with Otto Künzli’s Red Dot, which lets the wearer become complicit in revealing the basic law of consumerism, that one gets bought the moment one consummates the act of buying. For the moment the pin is bought and attached to the lapel of a wearer, it emits the message: “Not for sale. Wearer already bought.”

Peter Bauhuis. Pin: Fussel, 1997. Silver or Gold.
Andi Gut wearing a Lint Pin flicked away by the hand of Mirei Takeuchi.
Photo by: Peter Bauhuis


Another example is Peter Bauhuis’ Lint Pin, which looks like a piece of fluff on a garment and evokes an almost irresistible urge in the viewer to reach out and brush it off. In this case, adornment comes in the garb of disorder, and wearing the brooch seems to be inseparable from the message that the wearer is in need of being tidied up.
I hope that these few chance examples suffice to reveal what a brooch actually does, to the extent that it is seen as an element of the phenomenotechnical practices (7) at the root of all social interaction, enabling modern individuals to flare into appearance. It is in this connection that the brooch takes up its position at the threshold between an inner world and an outer world, rendering its wearer visible: as the centre of a network of associations, that connects the far and the near, the visible and the invisible, the material and the immaterial.


1. The example I am using in the following thought experiment, is a brooch by Daniel Kruger.

2. In the following, I would prefer to ignore the distinction between a brooch and a pin due to the nature of the topic at hand.

3. Semper, Gottfried, Über die formelle Gesetzmässigkeit des Schmuckes und dessen Bedeutung als Kunstsymbol, Zürich: Meyer & Zeller, 1856.
4. Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, transl. by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others, Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.

5. Ibid., section VI, p. 25.

6. See the introductory chapter in Mazumdar, Pravu, Gold und Geist. Prolegomena zu einer Theorie des Schmucks, Berlin: Matthes und Seitz, 2015, pp. 9-24.

7. The term is derived from Gaston Bachelard’s depiction of an experimental apparatus as a phenomenotechnical device that has first to generate a physical phenomenon before one can proceed to observe it by using the same device: “The trajectories, that allow the separation of isotopes in a mass spectrometer, do not occur in nature; they must be technically produced.” See Bachelard, Gaston, Le rationalism appliqué, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949: p. 103. Transl. into English by P. M.

About the author

Pravu Mazumdar
studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.