A Crowning Glory
Graceful semicircles of glittering gemstones, tiaras have graced royalty, the rich and famous and brides-to-be for centuries.
By Phyllis Schiller
|Garnet, pearl and diamond tiara in floral and foliate design, circa 1930, from the collection of a Danish noble family, sold for $276,204, more than twice its high estimate, at Sotheby’s Geneva, May 2014. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.
Symbols denoting power and prestige can be found as far back in time as ancient civilizations. But perhaps one of the most beautiful emblems of rank and royalty is the tiara. From the late 1700s through the 1900s, exquisitely crafted gem-set versions of this regal head ornament were worn not only at royal affairs but also at society balls, where invitations demurely decreed “tiaras will be worn.” Tiaras were indeed not only worn but were part of fashionable women’s jewelry wardrobes.
Unlike its weightier, circular cousin, the crown, a symbol of sovereignty, a tiara is not meant to cover the entire head. From kokoshnik-style tiaras with tall crescent shapes, inspired by traditional Russian headdresses, to headband-style “bandeau” tiaras, the design of tiaras changed through the decades. Some had a central raised jewel that could be removed and worn separately as a pendant. Others featured bejeweled front pieces that could be removed from the frame and worn as necklaces.
Leading jewelers of the day created tiaras using diamonds, pearls and precious gemstones to express traditional motifs such as scrolls, hearts and flowers and foliage. As the craft of jewelry making advanced, so, too, did the sophistication of the tiara. In fact, says Jeff Cohen, N. Green and Sons, Chicago, Illinois, he can date a tiara based on the cut of the stone and the style. “By looking at the style, whether there are engravings, the gemstones used, you can get a very good sense of when the tiara was made.”
Tiaras followed current jewelry design trends. “They always took on the same flowing form,” explains Cohen, but it was translated into “the look of the time” using the precious materials available. “Victorian tiaras we’ve seen are mostly yellow gold or silver top and yellow back and feature more old-mine and rose-cut diamonds. Tiaras dating from the Edwardian period are mostly in platinum. You see a lot of later examples that have a little more diamond weight to them. The Belle Époque styles have more European cuts — cleaner, whiter, better-cut stones.”
While tiaras became a staple of women of rank and privilege in Europe, “the United States, with democracy at its core, does not share the same history or tradition of tiara-wearing as Europe or the East,” explains Carol Elkins, senior vice president, Sotheby’s jewelry department. “Yet, in this country, there is a fascination with the tiara as a symbol of status and wealth, something not lost or forgotten by Hollywood filmmakers of the 1950s.” Smaller diamond tiaras, Elkins goes on to say, “like those made during the Belle Époque era of the early-twentieth century, are the ones most popular today at weddings, debutante balls and beauty pageants.”
Tiaras were produced by many American firms, points out Cohen. While there were no “duchesses” or other royals native to these shores, “there were heiresses,” Cohen adds, who made their society debuts wearing glittering tiaras.
Recent appearances on the small and big screen, such as Public Television’s “Downton Abbey” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” movie, have called attention to the glamour of these gem-set hair ornaments. Red-carpet A-listers are also not immune to the charms of tiaras. The antique diamond tiara given to Elizabeth Taylor by Mike Todd was included in the 2011 sale of her jewels at Christie’s and sold for over $4 million.
When it comes to tiaras, the “other” famous Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II, has one of the world’s most extensive collections. It includes the Cartier Halo tiara the Queen lent to Kate Middleton to wear on her wedding day to Prince William in 2011. Sparkling with 739 brilliant-cut diamonds, the tiara was commissioned in 1936 by the Duke of York, later to become King George VI, for his wife, who passed the tiara to her daughter.
Brides past and present, in fact, have included tiaras as part of their wedding ensemble, adding a “princess-for-the-day” specialness to the event. “I find that the requests we have had for tiaras come from those getting married; weddings seem to be the occasions people are considering for a tiara,” says Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, president of online retailer The Three Graces. “We find that antique and vintage pieces are always desired due to their quality and distinctive design and often one-of-a-kind nature.” Cohen also reports that over the years he has had calls from stores requesting tiaras for their customers for weddings.
Within the estate jewelry marketplace, tiaras are generally quite scarce, observes Stockhammer-Mial. “Most that we see are very grand and very high end — over $50,000 and often well into the six figures.”
In terms of the auction world, Sotheby’s Elkins sums up the availability of tiaras as “few and far between” with respect to other categories of jewelry such as rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces. However, she adds, “whenever tiaras do come up for sale, they perform very well.” An emerald and diamond tiara, circa 1900, in fact, set a world record price for the sale of a tiara at auction when it garnered $12,736,927 at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2011. One reason, Elkins explains, is it was “set with gem-quality emeralds and had an impressive provenance.”
The association with royalty and high society and glamourous events only adds to the appeal of these bejeweled accessories. And while twenty-first-century occasions for wearing tiaras are mostly reserved for royalty and brides, the elegance and workmanship of these traditional adornments remain something to be cherished.
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2014. To subscribe click here.