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Modern Collectibles – Gentlemen’s Stickpins

Modern Collectibles – Gentlemen’s Stickpins

Last year, I bought my wife a complete boxed set of The Avengers. So many episodes does it contain that we are still ploughing through them and, indeed, enjoying the kitsch nostalgia and humour of them enormously. The late actor Patrick McNee, as John Steed, the one constant protagonist of the series, was increasingly presented as an immaculate dandy in dress, despite his prowess in practically every other field of endeavour (the better to overcome a truly bizarre assemblage of enemies). This attire included racily cut three-piece suits by Pierre Cardin (as the credits aver), variously coloured bowler hats, outstandingly slim rolled cane-handled umbrellas (in varying hues – to match the suit and hat), such dandyism extending even to his appearing in the titles of the first colour series wearing a stick pin in his tie. 

Whilst I doubt if a true-bred English gentleman would have been seen dead in a Pierre Cardin three-piecer in those days, he certainly would neither have worn a brown or grey bowler, nor a stick pin in his tie, and even more certainly would have baulked at tying it in a Windsor knot (as Steed): frightfully non-U! 

The only acceptable place for a stick pin to be worn these days (and then) is with morning dress. Indeed, I inherited my father’s morning dress in my twenties and, from occasional formal wedding to occasional formal wedding, have been gradually growing into it ever since. He also left me his 14ct gold and pearl-headed stick pin, which I wear on such occasions with a light grey tie, although a cravat would be even more appropriate, but a trifle de trop for me.

The jewelled stick pin, though, is essentially a thing of the past, having been brought to perfection in the Belle Epoque, when late Victorians like Oscar Wilde and eminent Edwardians like the King wore them as a matter of course in tie, stock or cravat. Indeed, they ranged from gem-set examples made for Tsar Nicholas II by Carl Fabergé, others by Lacloche Frères, Cartier and Tiffany, to simpler ones like mine, or another I inherited, of silver set with an abalone shell in a miniature oval of chip diamonds. Edward VII was a great wearer of stick pins and, as a leader a fashion was duly emulated at most levels of society. 

British made examples tended towards the sporting: examples may be found topped with fox heads, horseshoes, diamond-set racehorses with enamelled jockeys up, finishing posts, riding whips, playing cards, dice and cameos of the pin-ups of the day. Indeed, one could signal one’s predilections with them: a pin topped with Alexander the Great, or the Emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend Antinöus, sent out a very specific message at a time when being openly gay was essentially illegal. Likewise, an image of Bacchus would suggest the wearer was a person of convivial inclinations.

Unfortunately, they fell out of fashion to some extent in the 1930s, when they were often re-made into brooches, and completely after the Second World War, when austerity impacted as much on fashion as on everything else. Stickpins and tiaras were most definitely passé. 

Yet these eclectic items are much collected, if not worn, and are available to suit all pockets. Indeed, even wearing them has undergone something of a revival, the lapel now being the favoured point of show for them, rather than a tie or cravat. Even so, it is hardly to everyone’s taste, especially in this age of studied informality, where ties seem to have given way to scraggy necks amongst the celebrities of the day.

Yet it is this unfashionableness which keeps prices of the more ordinary examples low. Although a Fabergé, Wartski, Tiffany, Cartier or similar one from over a century ago will set you back a four- or even a five-figure sum, simpler ones, even with gold or silver shafts, can be picked up for less than £50, and ‘costume’ ones in non-precious metals with marcasite or enamel tops can be bought for a lot less. Many are nevertheless attractive and styles infinitely varied.

My pearl topped pin has the obligatory twisted groove ascending the shaft, with the head tilted at 45˚ and a length of 21/2 inches – English ones always measure out in Imperial round figures; Continental ones generally are metric and the correct length should lie between 5.5cm and 6.5cm – anything longer is probably a hat-pin, an entirely different field of collecting. The use of 14ct. gold (or 9ct) was universal, even amongst the most expensive examples, as any higher purity would risk the shaft bending too easily. A similar pin to mine sold at Bamford’s recently for £44. The silver one, with its chip diamonds and abalone set head, might make £50 or £60. Base metal examples can range from £1 to £30 or £40, depending on the quality of their workmanship and general attractiveness.

If you look for them at auction, the less exotic ones are usually sold in groups, or occasionally with mixed lots of other jewellery or costume jewellery. Yet with the current trend amongst the international set for wearing a stick pin in the lapel, the glitterati are probably rescuing an outdated piece of male jewellery from obscurity (John Steed excepted) and as James Sherwood has remarked, ‘re-opening the floodgates of fashion’ once more. Furthermore, Carole informs me that there seems to be a growing trend for ladies to wear them about their costumes when attending the glitzier occasions too, so we must assume that prices might well soon start to move up.

In which case, aspiring collectors in this esoteric field ought to begin investing right away!


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