On the Nomenclature And Design of Tie, Scarf, And, If You Insist, Stick Pins

This is a tie pin:

It’s probably late Georgian or early Victorian – 1830-1850 – and it’s not, alas, mine; it belongs to a friend. (Were it mine, I’d have polished it. Silver’s supposed to shine, y’know.)

Anyway, I enjoy vintage jewelry as much as the next fellow. Actually, I probably enjoy it more than the next fellow, because part of the enjoyment I derive is knowing and understanding how the pieces were made. It’s an invaluable skill, not only because it lets you spot modern reproductions more easily, but because it helps you appreciate the amount of labor and effort that went – goes – into making entirely handmade jewelry.

Anyway, tie pins – which are two to two-and-a-half inches long, pretty much always; anything much longer than that is almost certainly a hat pin – are fun little pieces of history because they’re obsolete, because they’re inexpensive, and because they’re unisex.

The first two go hand-in-hand, for the most part – nobody wears tie pins anymore, so there’s little demand, and thus prices are highly affordable. But… unisex? Really?


Tie pins started out as a man’s accessory in the early 1800s, but by the end of the century women were wearing them, purely as ornamentation. In the first third of the 20th century, they were in vogue not just as decoration, but in another functional capacity, as scarf pins.

Eighty years later, everyone seems to call them “stick pins”, because we’re unoriginal and don’t remember our own history.

Stick pin == scarf pin == tie pin.

Anyway, people who collect – or, God forbid, wear – old tie pins may notice that some specimens have shafts which aren’t completely smooth, as you see here:

Sometimes there are little indentations like on this example; sometimes the shaft has been twisted several times.

Most people seem to think this is ornamental, which is stupid; you don’t see that part of the pin when it’s worn. (See the first picture, above.) Others – many others – claim that this was done to make the pins grip fabric better. At first glance, this seems plausible enough – until you stop to wonder why only a small percentage of tie pins have this, and why you never see it on mass-produced 20th-century base-metal pins. If it was to keep pins from falling out, why wasn’t such a functional feature widespread? And, indeed, why – when it does occur – is it always just in a narrow area in the very middle of the pin shaft, where it makes the least contact with fabric?

Well, quite simply, because it’s there for an entirely different reason altogether: strength.

The patterning, the twisting, is a byproduct of what actually went on, which is that the pin shafts were work-hardened by hammering or twisting, to give the metal additional strength… right in the middle of the pin, where it’s most likely to bend. You only see it on pins with silver or gold shafts; work-hardening would damage plated metal, and is completely unnecessary on the brass or bronze pins of base-metal tie and scarf pins.

Now, to be fair, you do often find tie pins with precious-metal shafts that haven’t been work-hardened, for whatever reason. I don’t think this necessarily reflects anything about the skill or knowledge of the jewelers who made such pieces; work-hardening metal is a very basic piece of knowledge that pretty much every jeweler in the last two centuries has known about – and jewelry textbooks even as recent as the 1910s specifically discussed work-hardening pin shafts. Rather, I think they chose to leave shafts unhardened for a combination of two reasons – the aesthetics of a perfectly smooth and unmarred piece of metal, and the realization, from experience, that despite what the textbooks say, no matter how much you harden the damned things, people are still going to bend them, anyway. (Which is in itself usually a pretty good way of playing spot-the-precious-metal-tie-pin, on eBay or Etsy or at an antique store. If the pin shaft is all wavy, it’s probably gold or silver. If it’s straight as an arrow, it’s almost certainly brass or cupro-nickel.)

So, now you know. And the next time you see a “stick pin” – at an antique store or your grandmother’s jewelry box, or wherever – please stop and appreciate the fact that such dainty, delicate little baubles were, once upon a time, made by skilled artists employing, however crudely, an important bit of classical engineering knowledge.

Published in: General | on August 23rd, 2012| Comments Off on On the Nomenclature And Design of Tie, Scarf, And, If You Insist, Stick Pins

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