Janice Issitt                    Life and Style

travel, interiors, photography, home, crafts, personal style

5 May 2017

Button History with Vivienne Ridley

It is impossible to say who invented the button, but since it’s first appearance, this method for fastening our clothes has never been surpassed.   Now seen as a purely functional item, used without much thought, the humble button has an incredibly rich history.  And while the fad for Velcro may have come and gone, the button is still there, as important today as it was centuries ago.

Probably more than any other everyday object, the button has been collected either with purpose or out of necessity, snipped from clothes to re-use, the button tin gets passed from generation to generation, holding the family history and memories in it’s jumble of little pieces of perfection. What child hasn’t delved their hand into that box and run the buttons through their fingers, like jar of sweets, these little beauties hold an extraordinary amount of information.

For such a small thing the button must have more styles than any other practical object, the infinite variability of this simple and satisfying coin-like treasure can transport our minds to another time and place.  

The earliest know buttons were used more as ornaments than as a fastening, although the ornamental surface was something that stuck for many thousands of years.  The first known discovery came from the Indus Valley (Pakistan) and is a curved shell about 5,000 years old, consisting of a flat face that fit into a loop.  Reinforced buttons holes didn’t appear until the mid 13th century where they were placed as single decoration rather than sitting in a row.  The Romans used them to hold yards of cloth and these were made to be more substantial using horn, bronze, bone or wood.  

During the Middle Ages, around the 11th century, clothes became more close fitting so this fastening became integral to the design which followed the curve of the body and was often also used to accentuate lines.  The first button makers guild was formed in France in 1250, their work appearing in all shapes and sizes but mostly on a shank with a blank side free for decoration.  So prized as an object, they were a sign of status and wealth, sometimes used as a currency and following the trends of fashion through the Renaissance.  Made from every imaginable material depending on your pocket.

The 17th century saw them turn into real gems lasting until the last
quarter of the 18th century when the tide turned to functionality, however in 1854 the Japanese ports opened to trade and a wave of influences appeared, among which was the small porcelain Satsumas, Japanese laquer and silver enamel inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The industrial revolution brought mass manufacturing to this industry as many others.  Engravers cut steel dies into the latest fashionable shape, while women and children covered them by machine.  Here is when we saw the more common style of four holes used in men’s dress shirts.

The Victorians really went to town with their variety of materials and symbolism, and these today are the most widely found of the intricate antique variety. The ‘Tussie-Mussie” was one type, picturing tiny bouquets of flowers holding a symbolic message. Queen Victoria started the tradition of mourning buttons, carved in black jet and the profusions of closely spaced buttons on boots also gave rise to the button hook, enabling the user to draw them through the holes more rapidly.

There is so much to talk about on this subject that button collecting is divided into many categories with the military button being a whole genre on its own, as you can imagine the insignia of regiments around the world is vast.

The most common categories you will find them categorized by are, Austian Tinies, Art Deco and Art Nouveau, Enamel, Silver, Cut Steel, Glass, Bimini type, pictures and plant life, decorative metal, rhinestones, mother-of-pearl and jet.  Other materials include bone, horn, celluloid, ceramic, fabric, leather, plastic and wood.

One of the most decorative are the Austrian Tinies from the late 19th century and early 20th century which can be identified by their construction of a pierced layer of metal over another material (like fabric or mother-of-pearl) and with a domed back, often 1cm or smaller.  Gilt buttons are also highly decorated as the brass or gilt surface lends itself to holding a lot of detail when cast.

While most collectors like to keep the buttons whole, there are some who like to give them a new purpose.  Vivienne Ridley is one such ‘reclaimer’, who now seeks out the prettiest buttons, cufflinks and medals to re-purpose into rings and necklaces. Her story of button love began, like us all, at that tin of Grandma’s snipped and saved ones for re-use.  Vivienne’s grandmother as typical of her generation was a magnificent sewer, having worked in an underwear factory in Wigan, she made all her families clothes from wedding dresses to school uniforms.  Hours would pass by gazing into that rich pile of oddments, while dreaming of diamond jewellery.

Since her degree at Sheffield, Vivienne has worked in many styles but it is the collectable buttons that have stuck with her and drawn so much attention from the public.  I caught up with her at the studio where she works, in the back of Brass Monkeys in Hove.  She explained her passion for the subject “I cherish the unknown history of the pieces I find and wonder about their past and the people that firstly made them and then those who wore them. I marvel at the craftsmanship and imagination that was put into these tiny treasures and fear that one day I will cut the back of one that is worth a small fortune!

We asked her how she finds the unusual buttons used in her jewellery, “I source the treasures from far and wide - my whole family know the drill if we go near an antique, junk or charity shop - the thrill of the treasure chase!

I have become increasingly fussy about the pieces I use, materials, scale, quality and colour all play a part. My ultimate aim is to take something of age and make it relevant to today, I keep the settings simple and clean to create a harmonious mix of old and new.
I also source from specialist sites and e-bay and am very lucky to have friends who are auction regulars they send me images of lots and ask me if I want to bid on them - they know my work so well sometimes they just go ahead - and I love a surprise!”

Button collecting really is an area where you can still find a rare treasure, just think of all those tins you see in charity shops.  Mostly on the hunt for single buttons means that Vivienne’s work is limited or single edition, she explains “I never get bored while I sit for hours at my bench, each pieces offers a new challenge and it also means my customers get something really special and unique to them. 

"I also do commissions - I am currently re working some stone set cufflinks that belonged to the customers grandfather and am setting them alongside some incredible ceramic and brass buttons, a dream of a job!”

Some of Vivienne’s finds have been so special she has cast a copy from the original, her large ‘Fly’ is available in both brass and silver (with diamond set eyes) and was taken from a 1940’s cufflink. 

Some are a mystery to her, like the round star ring that is probably a military or service button of some kind.  Pictured with a stunning Victorian enamel button ring in black and gold, a very high quality piece from around 1910.

Occasionally a medal without writing or engraving comes to light and Vivienne then engraves with a cheeky message of her own, like ‘rascal’.  She has also made a few unusual styles with a cufflink on one side and a stone at the other end of an open circle, looking when worn, like two rings in one.  The simple rub over style mounting is both smooth to wear and simple enough to enhance the antique find contained within.

At the studio shop (Brass Monkeys) in Portland Road, Hove, there are many other high quality British makers, individual in style and some using reclaimed items.  Rachel Eardley uses decommissioned coins and intricately hand cuts motifs like deer, she presents the necklaces in unique boxes with the history documented for the item. Others use pieces of old rulers and such.  It is an amazing shop so I urge you to visit. You can find Vivienne at http://vivienneridley.co.uk

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