A Family Tree of Tiaras

Author Geoffrey Munn may be to tiaras what Harold and Erica Van Pelt are to gemstone photography: historian, expert jeweler in his field, and friend to jewel collectors worldwide. Munn is the managing director of Wartski, a well-known jewelry store in London, and a man who knows his tiaras … and wreaths, diadems, and kokoshniks. His most recent book, The Tiara—A History of Splendor, available in August for $90, packs more than 20 years of experience with tiaras into a coffee-table tome loaded with pretty pictures. (To order a copy, call (800) 252-5231 or visit www.antique-acc.com.)

A jeweler for Wartski since 1972, Munn’s knowledge of tiaras is based on years of first-hand experience. In 1997, he assembled a showing of 100 different tiaras, borrowed from clients, to raise money for the Samaritans, a London-based counseling group. The show’s success led Munn to write a book on the subject as a way to satisfy the public’s fascination with tiaras. “Tiaras are the most exciting, the noblest, and simply the biggest of all the different forms of jewelry,” says Munn.

Munn’s book begins with the basics: He lets us know on page one that before gold was available at the end of the 4th century, wreaths of flowers, shells, and feathers were used as headpieces. Typically, wreaths themselves were made of sprays of oak, ivy, laurel, olive, or myrtle. Many wreaths, even those made of gold, were so detailed that some included insects. Diadems derive from the Latin word “diadeo” which means “I bind together.” Originally diadems were helmet shaped. A third prototype for tiaras is the Russian kokoshnik, says Munn—a stiff halo made of textiles, ornaments, and gemstones. Kokoshniks influenced jewelers across Europe, including jewelers in London and Paris, and were copied frequently.

There are two reasons why we still wear jeweled headpieces today, according to Munn. “Firstly, the material from which tiaras were made was seen as an expression of status, wealth, and security. Secondly, they implied the loss of innocence and crowning of love.”

Greeks and Etruscans were among the original jewelers, making diadems as early as the 7th century. Etruscan pieces had a more uniform look—attained through the use of die stamping—than those of the Greeks, evident in the look of leaves and berries. Roman handiwork introduced precious and semiprecious gems, including amethysts and sapphires, to diadem makers. Granulated and filigree pieces lost popularity at this time, but designers still used forms of flowers and leaves as a means of highlighting gems and metals. As Christianity spread, encouraging charity toward the poor, “ostentatious” diadems lost favor save for the coronals of marriage.

The 19th century was the richest time for tiaras. Munn tells us about Napoleon Bonaparte’s luxurious regime that called upon Imperial Roman, or Neoclassical, style to distract his countrymen from his “lack of ancestral credentials.” For his own coronation in 1804, Napoleon had a crown of karat gold laurels made to represent each of his victories. But the piece was so heavy that he asked the jeweler to “prune it back” to lighten his load. The crown has since disappeared, except for two gold leaves preserved in France.

Elaborate hair ornaments and configurations sidetracked traditional diadem makers in the second half of the 18th century. An extravagant French court took fashion trends a little too seriously. Munn quotes Hannah More, an English writer and educator of the poor, who immortalized French haute couture of the time by saying, “I protest I hardly do them justice when I pronounce that they had amongst them, on their heads, an acre and a half of shrubbery, besides slopes, grass plots, tulip beds, clumps of peonies, kitchen gardens, and greenhouses.”

But styles were more refined by the 19th century. Munn explains that jewelers wanted to satisfy a burgeoning and more prosperous middle class, who numbered travel and art collecting among their priorities. Jewelers such as London-based Carlo Giuliano studied the classics. A trademark style of Giuliano’s was black and white enamel mixed with white pearls and diamonds that complemented the black and white apparel of the day (see photo below).

In the 20th century, art nouveau designs enjoyed the limelight. Nouveau rebelled against the classics, and Munn refers to René Lalique as the “master” of that movement. His designs are “strangely sensual, such as an orchid carved in ivory with enameled leaves, and morbid, like decaying leaves,” says the author (see photo on p. 137).

The subsequent art deco phase in the mid-1920s reflected the two-dimensional effects of Egyptian art, which had been revered a few decades earlier. Deco grew from the modernist and anti-historical elements of art nouveau, and it co-existed with “machine-age” styles, including some made by Cartier.

While Munn’s knowledge of tiaras and how they evolved is overwhelming at times, the burgeoning popularity of this art form makes the book a must-read for jewelers interested in boosting their sales of tiaras. Among the dense history are several humorous anecdotes and fascinating details … and nothing sells like a good story.