Lecture Review: Tiaras - Elegance Abandoned

A lecture by Antiques Roadshow and Radio 4 personality Geoffrey Munn, at The Royal Academy of Art, Society of Antiquaries, Piccadilly in London on November 8, 1999.

Geoffrey Munn is writing a book on the subject (due out soon), so this was a light-hearted look at the evolution of tiaras through the ages. Geoffrey began by noting the continuing interest in tiaras-- the Cartier exhibition in Paris earlier in the century and the popular Wartski exhibition three years ago in London, which displayed 105 tiaras. His talk was supplemented with slides from Wartski, and various photos and paintings. As Geoffrey's lecture illustrates, tiaras may have been abandoned, but their elegance and awe-inspiring designs certainly linger on.

Diamond-Set Tiara, circa 1900, length: 15" (38cm). A gold and silver-mounted diamond-set tiara shaped as a myrtle wreath with six groups of diamond-set leaves and diamond berries on engraved red gold stalks. [Courtesy of Fabergé: A Broughton Masterpiece Presentation and Their Graces the Duke and Duchess of Westminster]

Tiaras or diadems have their origins in the ancient custom of crowning the victorious with oak twigs and acorns. Geoffrey pointed out that diadems were considered pagan until about the 1760's. However, in the early 1800's Napoleon and his Empress Josephine both enjoyed wearing neo-Classical ones designed in the shape of laurel leaves. Geoffrey showed examples of the diverse range of styles tiaras came in: neo-Egyptian, neo-Classicial, Russian "kokoshnik" (cocks comb), and Gothic. Many of them broke apart to become brooches, necklaces or clips.

In the past, tiaras were only worn by married women, and were symbols of everlasting love, often given by the groom to the bride. Many of the motifs were in themselves symbolic of devotion-- garlands of roses and other swirling flowers, hearts, wings, acorns and oak leaves, emblematic of the strength of love. One dazzling Russian tiara (c1840), had been set with turquoise and diamond oak leaves representing fortitude and the crowning of the loved one.

Not only symbols of love, tiaras were also worn to display wealth. The most spectacular of these was a tiara designed by Prince Albert for his wife Queen Victoria. It is made of brilliant cut diamonds, rectangular and square cut emeralds, and square and cabochon cut sapphires, costing about £1,150 in 1845. Geoffrey mused that it must have been distracting talking to the Queen wearing this piece, as the scale of the gems are so enormous considering her petite height. In more recent times, Lady Granville wore an amazing tiara, made with stones from antiquity originally designed for Alexander II of Russia, which cost about £20,000 in the 1850's.

Jewelers such as Cartier, Fabergé, Boucheron, and Garrards eagerly created tiaras for their wealthy clients. The Duke and Duchess of Westminister own one such Fabergé creation-- a gold tiara in the form of cyclamen leaves and flowers set with brilliant and rose cut diamonds. When taken off the frame, it can be worn upside down as a fabulous necklace.

Designers Burne-Jones and Lalique created tiaras from unusual materials.

The popularity of wearing tiaras seemed to keep pace with current events. On the eve of WWI, Cartier made tiaras out of gun metal. Between 1916 and 1922, perrages grew through marriages and knighthoods, and there were lots of formal occasions to wear only the most exquisite tiaras. Retailers rejoiced as business boomed.