Developing in the last years of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was based on a profound unease with the industrialised world. Its jewellers rejected the machine-led factory system – by now the source of most affordable pieces – and instead focused on hand-crafting individual jewels. This process, they believed, would improve the soul of the workman as well as the end design.
Arts and Crafts jewellers avoided large, faceted stones, relying instead on the natural beauty of cabochon (shaped and polished) gems. They replaced the repetition and regularity of mainstream settings with curving or figurative designs, often with a symbolic meaning.
The designer of this brooch, C. R. Ashbee, was a man of immense talents and energy and a defining figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1888 he founded the Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London with the intention of reviving traditional craft skills and providing satisfying employment in a deprived area of the city. Trained originally as an architect, he is known also for his highly innovative furniture, metalwork, silver and jewellery designs.
The peacock was one of Ashbee’s favourite and most distinctive motifs and he is known to have designed about a dozen peacock jewels in the years around 1900. Family tradition is that this brooch was designed for his wife, Janet.