Tiaras, received opinion has it, belong only on the heads of queens and princesses, tsarinas and aristocrats, yet today they can be found adding glamour to a whole range of people who have never set foot in a palace. From Courtney Love and Paris Hilton to Rei Kawakubo (who wore one to the Met Ball) and Madonna – not to mention the hen-night guests and the happy brides, the party girls and the Disney princesses – tiaras, it seems, are the new accessory du jour.
Speak to Chaumet, which as one of the oldest and grandest of all the renowned jewellers has been historically connected with tiaras since the dying days of the ancien regime, and they will tell you that there’s a reason they reinstated their long-closed tiara room when they renovated their Place Vendôme hôtel particulier: tiaras are having a moment. When they highlighted a glorious contemporary version in their new salon it sold so fast (to a Chinese woman who had just sold her business) that Harrods, which it had been destined to visit, never got to see it.
Newly fashionable they may be, but rules and traditions have changed. In times gone by, tiaras could only be worn by married women, and all the noble houses either bought or commissioned their own. As the late Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire recounted: "When I was a young woman in the 1930s, one’s tiara was a kind of identity card. The face underneath was known by the helmet of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls glittering on her head ... We would have been very muddled if there had been a general swap around and the Duchess of Northumberland wore Lady Astor’s, and Lady Londonderry turned up in one of the Duchess of Buccleuch’s."
Fine tiaras are infinitely more versatile than most people realise. Almost all the grand historical tiaras and the ones belonging to the great aristocratic houses could be broken down into brooches, necklaces, bracelets and/or earrings so that they weren’t just reserved for grand court occasions or weddings.
These days anything goes, for, strictly speaking, a tiara is anything that is worn on the head. Though in most people’s eyes it is the grand old tiaras – made in precious materials and set with dazzling gemstones by the great houses of Chaumet, Boucheron, Cartier, Fabergé, et al – that are the most exquisite. In recent times, they have been made from wood and acrylic, from feathers and aluminium.
The punk movement, of course, took to subverting a whole host of royal symbols, not least amongst them the tiara. As Geoffrey Munn points out, in his splendid book written to accompany the V&A’s 2002 Tiaras exhibition, when Paula Yates took to wearing tiaras it was because "she saw it as a curiosity, a fashion accessory ... an object of irony. Her tiaras were not set with diamonds [but] with rhinestones and she sported them with her faded jeans or her (very) short mini-skirts."
Since then a whole host of modern designers have turned their talents to creating contemporary versions of diadems and tiaras. Shaun Leane, who made Princess Beatrice’s engagement and wedding rings as well as a whole collection for Givenchy couture, has recently been commissioned to make a tiara for a man ("and it’s not Elton John"). He says he loves making them. "I’m all about the occasion – wearing a tiara is a celebration but afterwards the client has the ability to take elements from the tiara – a brooch, a pendant, earrings – and wear them every day. It’s all about the craftsmanship."
Chaumet itself has also enlisted contemporary designers to re-invent the genre: in 2017, Scott Armstrong came up with a striking version made from white gold, rose gold, diamonds, citrines, yellow garnets, green beryls, green tourmalines and emeralds.
Even as edgy a shop as Dover Street Market has had tiaras on sale. Designer Solange Azagury-Partridge says the young party-going set love wearing them and she always has a couple in her collection, though hers are usually more like fancy headbands than towering tiaras. An Azagury-Partridge piece at Dover Street Market consists of three bands of interspersed diamonds with mercury wings on either side, and is on sale for £51,000.
Some, surprisingly, cost much less than one might suppose. Whilst a new version in the traditional style from a house such as Boucheron or Chaumet could easily cost upwards of £500,000, there are plenty available at under £100,000. A trawl through some of the more recent sales at Bonhams, for instance, reveals some utter gems. An enchantingly pretty 1890 tiara made from pearls and diamonds sold for £11,250 in 2017. Jessica Wyndham, head of jewellery sales in Europe at Sotheby’s, has seen some spectacular tiaras pass through its auction rooms but it, too, often has absolute gems at surprisingly accessible prices. Just recently an enchanting pearl and diamond tiara sold for £20,000, whilst an Art Deco diamond diadem sold for £10,000.
Sandra Cronan, a vintage jewellery expert, nearly always has a tiara in her collection. Currently, she has a wonderful American Art Deco diamond necklace/tiara with a central diamond weighing approximately 0.5cts, mounted in platinum, for £26,500. She can also create a tiara around a cherished inherited piece – say a brooch or a pendant – which can then be dismounted so that the brooch or pendant can still be worn independently. That’s part of the appeal: while contemporary styles inject new life into these age-old jewellery arts, the most traditional pieces go on being loved and admired and worn in surprisingly different ways.
Andrew Prince, who made (quite beautifully) most of the jewellery for "Downton Abbey", makes enchanting versions using crystal instead of precious stones. "I don’t see the point of discreet jewellery," he says. "I love tiaras. I’m often asked to make them for hen-nights, for weddings, for the Caledonian Ball (where tiaras are always worn), for theme parties such as "The Great Gatsby" or Belle Epoque. For me, it’s all about the craftsmanship. I make every part myself – it’s just there aren’t any diamonds." Prince can make a surprisingly pretty version for about £500 and he sells online, and will also make to order. "They’re the most useless items of all jewellery," he laughs, summing up the appeal of the tiara, "but they seem to make women the happiest."
Top: Audrey Hepburn plays Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images