An Art Nouveau brass head hat pin, with bezel-set opaque Leo Popper glass stone, nine inches long with a one-inch stone. It has a value of about $100.
Antique Victorian hat pins—long wire stems that attached to the top of a fancy woman’s hats, adorned at the top, with a “head” of Art Nouveau brass or silver, glass, paste gems or virtually any other material used in jewelry of the Edwardian or Victorian era—are a fascinating collectable, with ties to the history of women in American society, women’s apparel and high-end costume jewelry.
One of the most notable features of the hat pin is that it is the only piece of woman’s jewelry ever to be considered a “lethal weapon,” and thus an issue of legal controversy for a time. Their long, straight, sharp pointed steel stem could deliver quite a poke, or worse, though the anecdotes are probably more urban legend than factual accounts. There aren’t records of women sword fighting with hatpins, or mass murdering sprees involving hat pins, but where there’s smoke there’s fire, and if you accidently jab yourself with one of them, it’s not hard to accept the fact that the fashionable ladies of the time were strolling down the boulevard with weaponized hats on their heads!
The real function of a hat pin was to hold or fasten the tall hat to a lady’s head (her hair done up in a bun, actually). They range in length, more or less, from six to 12 inches, with heads ranging (in general) from a half-inch to two inches in diameter.
Their values usually range from a few dollars each for the smaller and plainer ones, to several hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars (occasionally) for the very best of the best. These highest-valued hat pins are usually valuable because it’s composition (gold, silver, fine porcelain) and/or its artist or maker (Tiffany, Popper, Limoges, Guerin, etc.).
Lot of five full-length hatpins, about eight inches long, with an average head width of ¾ of an inch. The heads are of wire-worked brass, sea shell, ruby and sapphire glass, and mother of pearl. Their values are about $25 each.
If you are purchasing hat pins for their beauty and interest, and to enjoy them as a collectable, you can’t go wrong. They can be displayed in “hat pin holders” of china and porcelain and set out on formal dresser sets, or grand pianos, like a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
But in purchasing them for resale or as an investment, it can be a precarious undertaking. You really need to research their values, and this takes a good amount of time and diligence. Antique hat pins are not something you can scan eBay search results for and consider yourself schooled on the subject. The phrase “I know just enough to get myself into trouble” will come in to play quite quickly!
Reproduction hatpins, or more accurately, contemporary hatpins, are an issue to consider. I say “contemporary” because a modern artist, craftsman or glass blower, could create hatpins for the same reason they create any other piece of costume jewelry, with no nefarious intent. Yet, as they are bought and sold in the market place, they can easily be mingled in with period hat pins. An expert hat pin collector or vintage jewelry collector can, upon close inspection, usually tell you the approximate age of a hat pin, based on the material used to connect its head to its stem.
The small metallic part, used to attach the head to its stem is called the “finding” and they are usually very small brass bushings or funnel-shaped fittings. Using a magnifying loop under a light, you can usually tell if the finding is original by taking in to account the fading or tarnish that would normally occur over many years. This is one of the most important components in determining the age and authenticity of an antique hat pin.
For the most expensive hatpins, the condition of both the stem and the head is critical. The stem needs to be straight, so that if you spin it in your hands like a rolling pin, it doesn’t wobble. As for the head, since it is generally small and the focus of your eye as you enjoy the appeal of the piece, even a small bit of damage needs to be taken into consideration.
If the hat pin has 25 paste gem stones and is missing just one, it’s an issue. If it is a fine porcelain piece and has a small patch of tarnish, especially in critical spot, it will obviously hurt its value as well. And if it’s a glass-head hat pin, any chipping or cracking will need to be noted. Early glass-head hat pins sometimes have grinding flakes from the manufacturing process, but if it is a chip or flake from damage occurring after manufacture, that needs to be considered in a different way.
A large Carnival glass head, 1 ½-inches in diameter, in “seat cushion” style with rainbow highlights. It has a value of $75.
A fancy Victorian hat pin head with 100 green and white paste gemstones, prong-set onto a brass head. It is valued at $150.
A solid jet black glass head in Scarab or beetle form. A classic design, it is valued at $95.
A silver head Art Nouveau head marked Sterling on base. It carries an $85 value.
There was a woman named Lillian Baker, a well-known author, historian and collector, who wrote several books on antiques, including some of the very first on the subject of hat pin collecting. I believe she was tops in the field, and any research library would be incomplete without some of her reference works.
My mother was an advanced hat pin collector, and I learned all I know about hat pins from her. She loved the colors, the sparkle, the history and the beauty and creativity of the Victorian hat pins produced by the fine artisans of the period. The photos in this post are some of her favorite types.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.
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