More Than a Button: The Stories Behind Compass Rose Design

Creek and Johnny Van Houten founded their jewelry company Compass Rose Design out of their love of history, particularly the history of small things like buttons. Since she was a young child Creek has been captivated by the tiny designs and curious about the original owners, and collected buttons sifting through her grandmother’s sewing box. Years later while living in Amsterdam, Creek discovered that her 9th great grandfather was a button maker in 1652 during Holland’s Golden Age. Johnny also inherited a box of buttons from his great grandmother, who was a milliner with a fantastic collection. To the couple, a button is more than just a button. It is a revolutionary invention. We invited them to share the history of the button and how they honor that history with their jewelry pieces.

Buttons are a convergence of fashion, history, technology and politics. Originally invented in the Bronze Age, buttons were used in Ancient Greece, the Indus Valley and China as ornaments rather than fasteners for the first several thousand years. The buttonhole was invented in 10th century Persia, then later in Medieval Europe, changing function and fashion forever. The button is a perfect invention and an enduring technology that has changed little in centuries. Often outlasting their garments, buttons have historically been collected and reused, bringing with them a story of the wearer and the era.

Compass Rose casts some of the original antique buttons in recycled sterling silver and bronze to translate these vintage histories into contemporary jewelry designs that work with the practicalities of modern life. Each piece is made in California from recycled metals that stand up to the demands of daily life.

“While the bees may have actually been cicadas, the bee has remained a part of French heraldry and fashion for centuries.”

17th century archeological explorations profoundly inspired fashion trends, especially the 1748 rediscovery of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been buried in ash by the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Ancient motifs that stretched back hundreds if not thousands of years became popular in architecture and fashion across the continent and beyond. The peacock design was brought from Persia to ancient Greece through the Macedonian King Alexander the Great, and appears in ancient Roman wall paintings and mosaics as the sacred animal of the Goddess Juno. In the 1880s, craftsmen captured the ancient bird in a brass button with individual rivets in each feather. This button would have probably adorned the front of a Victorian dress to add a statement and sparkle.

Many 19th century button designs were influenced by the era of Napoleon, which brought many ancient Greek and Egyptian design motifs like cameos and snakes into fashion. (Did you know Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was an Egyptian-style serpent with a turquoise stone?)

Another design with ancient roots is the honey bee, which became popular in Empire fashion under Napoleon. Napoleon chose the honey bee as an Imperial emblem to link his new empire to the ancient kingdom of the 5th century Merovingian king, Childeric I. The 1653 excavation of Childeric’s tomb revealed a ceremonial cloak covered in 300 golden winged insects with garnet inlay, though only the insects remained. While the bees may have actually been cicadas, the bee has remained a part of French heraldry and fashion for centuries. The Victorians also adored winged insects, which were especially popular in the 1880s in jewelry, fabric and button designs. Compass Rose Design continues this tradition by using an original button from the 1880s for their Queen Bee Necklace.

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