Jewels of an Empire: Scotland, India, Burma and a World of Color…

A World of Color: Gems, Jewels, Treasure & a Great Big Plaid Brooch

Embracing Color in Scotland’s Era of Empire

Color has always played a tremendous role in traditional Celtic dress and has continued to play a tremendous role in traditional Scottish dress to this day. Tartan, after all, is practically synonymous with Scotland. (So ubiquitous in fact that some Scots feel tartan has just gotten too touristy…)

A quality tartan of course can never be accused of being "tourist tat" --but with so much color it is blindly obvious that accessories must also incorporate a world of color. And, historically, they did.
A quality tartan of course can never be accused of being “tourist tat” –but with so much color it is blindingly obvious that accessories must also incorporate a world of color. And, historically, they did.

We think of Scottish style as being rooted firmly in the past. And, in fact, the Kilt is one of the oldest forms of “folk dress” worn in the British Isles. And as for tartan? Well… the historical evidence is scattered but tartan, or a tartan-like material dates back at least to the time of the first Ceasars… and may pre-date written history in the West. When the Celts were the dominant tribe of Central Europe, tartan was their cloak of choice.

While we know relatively little about the daily lives of the earliest Celts who built the standing stones we do know that they wore a tartan-type material as trews, capes and women's dresses.
While we know relatively little about the daily lives of the earliest Celts who built the standing stones we do know that they wore a tartan-type material as trews, capes and women’s dresses.

However, despite the ancient roots of Scottish Tartanwear, today “traditional” Scottish dress is very much rooted in the formal world of the Victorian era. The sewn-down pleats of the modern Kilt, the form-fitting men’s jackets, even the hard-soled Ghillie Brogues and quasi-military style hats still worn today, were all fashion innovations of the 19th century. 

We think today of the 19th century as somehow more black and white than our own age, a murky mix of sepia and silver tones, dominated by stern men in stovepipe hats and a Queen in perpetual mourning. But the 19th century was, in fact, an extraordinarily colorful era and an era when color would play more of a role in men’s dress than it has at any time since.

Just because the only photographs we ever see of the Victorian era are in black and white does not mean the nineteenth century --or the early twentieth century-- lacked color. These girls once blushed...
Just because the only photographs we ever see of the Victorian era are in black and white does not mean the nineteenth century –or the early twentieth century– lacked color. These girls once blushed…

But the ladies weren’t alone in a world of forgotten color. The men of the 19th century –particularly the Scottish men of the 19th century– also lived in a world of color. And their, ahem, jewelry –Plaid Brooches, cufflinks, Belt Buckles, and other “furnishings”– was of a scale and style that seems startling in our far more conservative twenty-first century.

Double Thistle Cufflinks
“Furnishings” is a term that used to cover more than just the furniture. In the jewelry world we –ahem, we as in jewelers, I’m not quite that old– used to call all of the “hardware” –cufflinks, belt buckles, watchfobs, dirks, and yes… Plaid Brooches– that men might wear for a formal event a man’s “furnishings.”

Many of the “furnishings” a gentleman might have worn for a formal event in the 1870s has fallen far out of fashion. But for formal Scottish events the “furnishings” of the 19th century are still very much en vogue. And no piece of “furniture” is more necessary or more iconic for a kilted man at a formal event than a formal Plaid Brooch.

Prior to the mid 19th century there was rarely much divide between what style of Plaid Brooch a man might wear for “day” or “evening”. A laird might very well have a “Sunday Best” coat or jacket, but many men had only one brooch and wore their good brooch whenever they wore their plaid.

By the mid 19th century “Scottish Dress” or, as it was known at the time, “Highland Wear” had become Victorian-ized. In fact most of the modern rules of Scottish dress were enshrined during the Scottish Revival of the 19th century. For the well-to-do the Victorian age was an era of codified dress. Formal wear, Morning wear, Sports wear, Evening and, eventually, white tie and black tie.

Among the elite the old Highland habit of simply wearing one’s “best” for an event disappeared. The new codification of Highlandwear in the Victorian age coincided with the continued expansion of the industrial revolution –which helped to commercialize dress and accessories in a way that had never been possible before– and the expansion of Victoria’s Empire. For the Scots, in particular, the Empire provided a chance to re-assert their Scottish identity.

Service in the new “Highland” Regiments provided the Scots with a way to reclaim their warrior identity after the collapse of the Jacobite cause. It also gave many Scots a path back to prosperity and respectability. The sons and grandsons of the Scots who fought at Culloden who joined the King’s –and then the Queen’s– Regiments had an opportunity to earn the Crown’s trust and, perhaps, regain lands and titles lost in the aftermath of the Culloden defeat.

And, as the 1850s progressed and well-to-do Englishmen and women traveled north to enjoy their Highland vacations, many Highlanders travelled overseas to battle for the fast expanding Empire.

Over the course of the 19th century Scots would serve in Egypt –and later much of the rest of Africa– China, North America and India among other locations.

Fairly early in the 19th century the Scots adopted the idea that for “dress wear” or “evening wear” a Plaid Brooch with a stone –real, fake or obviously glass– was the must have accessory. But… as the century changed and the Scots became far more worldly –in fact many Scottish military families would traverse the globe in the 19th century– the gems that were incorporated in a Scottish gentleman’s “furnishings” evolved and became far more exotic. 

The Scots had always loved color. And in the 19th century a world of gems opened up to them. The 19th century Scottish Revival coincided with the rise of the British Empire and the era of the Raj and some of the best Scottish-made jewelry of the 19th century features Indian Rubies, Sri Lankan Moonstones & Burmese Jade.

Although Moonstones don’t occur in Scotland they appear in a great deal of traditional Scottish jewelry made in the 19th century… Milky, moony souvenirs of Sri Lanka and India. This 21st century Plaid Brooch by Nagle Forge & Foundry features a cat’s eye Moonstone cut en cabochon. Like many 19th century designs our 21st century design is a little Victorian, a lot Celtic, thoroughly unique and fully functional.

To modern eyes the colors used in 19th century Scottish dress often seem hopelessly garish, unnervingly gaudy. (The well dressed Scottish man of the 1850s was as liable to pair his kilt with a form fitting silk tartan jacket and a velvet cape as he was to don the now traditional black wool.)

Agates are one of the native Hardstones –Agates are typically thought of as a “hardstone” rather than a gem– of Scotland. However, Scottish Agates are usually grey, striped or milky in appearance. Carnelian –a warm orangey form of Agate– was an exotic import with an old and legendary reputation. Carnelian has been known as “the Courageous Stone” and has been used as an amulet stone since the time of Hamurabi. It remained popular for the next three thousand years as a material for seals & by the Middle Ages had acquired a reputation –perhaps based on its reddish-brown color– as a stone of courage.

Fakes –or man made stones– also found a place in Victorian era Scottish jewelry. For modern shoppers trying to find an “authentic” stone can be a bewildering experience. In many ways we have a far too narrow view of Victorian fashion and a far too narrow view of what is and is not authentic. The 19th century Scots were not constrained by the conviction that they had to wear an authentically “Scottish” stones. They were authentic Scots –who in their own way were recreating what it meant to be Scottish in an era of industrialization, war and Clearance. Thus we recommend in the twenty-first century to shake free the rules  we have imposed on ourselves, remember that although all of our photographs of our great grandparents may be in black and white that those people, our ancestors, lived in color. And thus we recommend that when shopping for a Plaid Brooch to remember the world of color of the ancient Celts, the world of color of the Victorians, and the world of color of our own age.

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