Most luckenbooth brooches sold today are heart-shaped with a crown above. Sometimes the design is a pair of interlocking twin hearts. But it wasn’t always so. This kind of traditional Scottish brooch could be a very simple outline heart, as you can see in some museums. So don’t take it as a rule that only a pair of intertwined hearts with a crown deserves the name “luckenbooth”, though a crowned heart is the most common shape.
The brooches were traditionally given as love tokens, or as betrothal gifts instead of an engagement ring, with initials on the back. Mottoes like “let thee and me most happy be” were sometimes engraved on heart brooches. They were also widely used to fend off bad luck, especially for newborn babies and nursing mothers wanting to ensure a good flow of milk. A little silver heart was pinned to a child’s clothing to keep it safe. Some would say this was to protect against witches; others mentioned “the guid folk” or mischievous fairies. In some regions a girl’s brooch was put near her left hip, and a boy’s half-way down the left thigh.*
Although these customs were dying out by the 20th century, many individuals and families held on to their luckenbooth brooches, because of their meaning perhaps, and some used them for good luck in times of illness etc. While little pieces of silver like this were treated as lucky charms, the name luckenbooth has nothing to do with luck. It meant the shops (locking/lucken booths) used for several centuries by Edinburgh jewellers, from where the name spread across Scotland.
Usually an antique luckenbooth brooch is silver and quite small. Silver can be associated with good fortune or protection against evil, in Britain and across Europe. Think of traditional silver christening gifts for babies or silver charms of various kinds.
There were also practical reasons why silver was more popular than gold. Most heart brooches were not showy pieces for the wealthy classes. Silversmiths knew a lot of poorer customers wanted this kind of jewellery. Simple looped pins, not fully hinged, were common fastenings. If the brooch was decorated with gems, they were often coloured glass paste. Semi-precious garnets were also used. Today, even the plainest luckenbooth brooches are sold at antiques auctions for a good price if they were made before 1800.
Luckenbooth brooches used to have other names too.
- Witch’s brooch. This underlines the superstitious reasons for protecting children with a small piece of silver pinned on their clothing.
- Mary’s brooch. Some people say the v-shaped dip in a capital M resembles the the top of a heart, and there are stories linking the brooch with Mary Queen of Scots and her husband Lord Darnley.
The brooches could be a simple friendship gift too – with no suggestion of romance or “evil eye” protection. In the 1920s the design was chosen as the symbol for a network of women’s clubs (SWRI) who made the heart white to stand for purity and the crown gold for courage.
Heart and crown designs were well-liked outside Scotland too: for instance, in Irish claddagh rings, Scandinavian ring brooches, Portuguese pendants with curved point hearts, and more.
* Customs from the late 18th century, according to Alexander S. Brook in Scottish History and Life, ed. James Paton, 1902
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