SHOE BUCKLES & BELT BUCKLES
Dress buckles were vital accessories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their great variety and interest, not to mention their availability and relative cheapness, makes them an excellent subject for the modern collector.
From time to time, buckle fasteners have transcended their humble origins to blossom as important fashion accessories and now present a variety of interesting and relatively inexpensive collectables.
Buckle fasteners have been worn for more than 2,500 years. Sometimes they've been strictly functional, and sometimes purely decorative. In the 18th century they reached a pinnacle of popularity, and were worn on hats, shoes and breeches well as belts.
The majority of people wore buckles of base metal - brass or bronze perhaps - while the wealthy wore silver ones. At this time, a 'well-turned leg' was vital for a fashionable gentleman; silver buckles on his shoes and at the knee of his breeches drew attention to shapely lower limbs.
Some shoe buckles were fairly substantial. Artois buckles, named after a French count, weighed up to 225gm/8oz each. These were only in fashion for a short time, but less hefty shoe buckles remained popular until around 1800, when straps and laces came back into fashion.
Picture shows George III Artois shoe buckle set with paste stones
and central green enamel panel, metal chape, with straight sided chape and
cross-piece, 4" (10cm); together with three other paste set shoe buckles of
various designs and sizes, all circa 1760's -1790's.
Silver was rarely used for belt buckles before 1790. Up to then, even the rich wore brass, bronze, spelter, steel or iron - though sometimes the rims were silver. The fixing - pair of prongs or a locking bar - was made of iron or steel.
Belt buckles were particularly popular in Scotland where they were part of traditional Highland dress. Cross belts and waist belts both sported cast-silver buckles extravagantly decorated with interlaced Celtic tracery, thistles and other symbols of national pride, and were often encrusted with cairngorms, the semi-precious stones from northern Scotland.
Dress buckles, which ranged from ones made to be threaded on ribbons and worn under the bust to a variety of small ones for garters, arm bands, suspenders or braces, are another rewarding, and often inexpensive area for today's collector. In the second half of the 19th century they were gilt or silver-plated and die-cast in fancy shapes, which included barred gates, hearts and horseshoes, as well as sporting and erotic designs.
Dress buckles remained fashionable for much of the 20th century, and were made during the art nouveau and art deco periods from an increasing variety of materials.
BUCKLE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
There are an enormous number of buckles on the market today. Depending on the type, you'll find them at antiques shops, markets and fairs, flea markets, bric-a-brac stalls, jumble sales and boot sales. You may find it's best to collect less expensive buckles in base metal and other non-precious materials until you get a feel for your subject. It makes sense to specialise in a particular type - dress, belt or shoe buckles - and a specific period.
The price of buckles varies according to what their made of and the ornamentation, date and design. Precious stones and metals have an intrinsic value, of course, and old pieces set with diamonds or rubies will fetch premium prices.
Other expensive items include the very rare silver shoe buckles of the 17th century and mid- 18th-century Artois buckles. Remember that a matched pair of shoe buckles is worth between two
and a half and three times as much as a single one.
At the cheaper end of the market are the novelty,
silver-plated small dress buckles made in the 19th century and most 20th century items. Uniform buckles, from civil as well as military sources, are an interesting field. Nurses' buckles, some of them in elaborate art nouveau shapes, and military buckles and belt plates carrying regimental insignia are particularly sought after.
Buckles of the 20th century were more varied than in any previous period. Bright enamels and arresting shapes make for an excellent display. Dating can sometimes be a problem, but style is your best guide; gold and silver buckles, of course, are hallmarked, though silver ones made before 1773 may well carry only the maker's name, or no marks at all.
BUYING AND DISPLAYING BUCKLES
When buying buckles, remember that rusted ones, or those that have damaged spring mechanisms, are worth just a quarter to a half of the price of buckles in working order.
A good way to display your collection of buckles is behind glass in a picture frame. Tie or sew a selection of individual buckles to a coloured velvet or silk mount which has been stretched over a cardboard backing.