Crowns and Tiaras

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Throughout history, men and women of status have adorned their foreheads with various kinds of crowns and tiaras, which symbolized social superiority and power.

The ancient Egyptian pharaohs favored gold head-bands that were sometimes decorated with tassels and other ornaments hanging over the forehead, temple, and down to the shoulders. A precious example was discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, King of Egypt in ca. 1339–1329 b.c.e. The excavation of his tomb in 1922 revealed the young king's mummy adorned with a gold diadem formed as a circlet. At the front was a detachable gold ornament with the head of a vulture and the body of a cobra, symbolizing the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt.

The origin of the term "diadem" is derived from the Ancient Greek "diadein," which means "to bind around." Diadems were made from all kinds of metal, and with only a limited amount of gold available, Greek craftsmen decorated them with embossed rosettes or other motifs, including the Heracles knot, a reef knot often found in Hellenistic jewelry. After Alexander the Great opened up the gold supply from the Persian Empire in 331 b.c.e., the styles became less austere and diversified into intricate garlands of leaves and flowers.

The Romans expanded on the fashion for gold head-bands, adding precious stones to their designs. The first real diadem, a golden band with a raised point at the front, is attributed to the Roman Emperor Gaius Valerius Diocletianus (c.e. 245–313). According to the British historian Edward Gibbon, (1737–1794), "Diocletian's head was encircled by a white fillet set with pearls as a badge of royalty." "Fillet" is another word for a narrow decorated band encircling the hair.

The term tiara, in its original form, describes the high-peaked head decoration worn by Persian kings. It was later adapted as the Pope's headwear with a second and third crown added in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, thus making up the Papal Triple Crown, which is used at the Vatican on ceremonial occasions.

To decorate the head with flowers or leaves was an ancient custom and signified honor, love, or victory. The Greeks celebrated victory in games by crowning the champions with a wreath made of natural laurel leaves. The Romans continued the tradition, but took it a step further by honoring their victorious generals with wreaths made of real gold, thus metaphorically turning perishable natural foliage into the eternal. While Roman conquerors were honored with golden wreaths of glory, Roman brides wore natural ones, made of flowers and leaves. Dressed in a white tunic and shrouded under a veil, the bride wore a bridal wreath symbolizing purity of body and soul. Lilies symbolized purity; wheat, fertility; rosemary, male virility; and myrtle, long life—metaphors followed by brides over the course of centuries thereafter. Symbolism was quintessential in the design of all ceremonial headwear. Emblems of victory, signs of virginity, or symbols of sufferance, like the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus Christ, were to play a part in the formation of religion, literature, and legends.

Tiaras were not popular during medieval times, as the demure fashion of the time dictated that a woman's head and hair should be covered by cone-shaped hats with soft or stiffened veils. The advent of the Renaissance changed social values again, and hair was allowed to assert its natural beauty with elaborate ringlets and waves framing the face. The tresses and curls could be tied back or flowing free and were adorned with a variety of natural or jeweled decorations, some of which came close to a diadem, but did not have the regal, stiff look of a tiara. Titian painted a sensual female lover in The Three Ages of Men, wearing a wreath of myrtle symbolic of everlasting love.

French society during Napoleon's reign (1799–1814) was inspired by a passion for classical aesthetics. With it, came a revival of the ancient fashion for diadems.

For his coronation in 1804, Napoleon wore a laurel wreath of golden leaves, each representing one of his victories. Made by the Parisian goldsmith Biennais after a design by the miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Isabay, it is alleged to have cost 8,000 francs. As Napoleon found the wreath too heavy to wear, six leaves were removed just before the coronation.

Napoleon's Roman wreath of victory was plagiarized by society ladies and a new fashion was born. Hair-styles had a new, swept-up classical look, which was perfectly complemented by the Spartan diadem, a high, flat tiara, pointed at the front, embossed in gold and decorated with jewels. Empress Josephine, Napoleon's consort until her divorce in 1809, was painted on several occasions, wearing different Spartan diadems, which were also known as bandeaux.

Napoleon bestowed an even more elaborate and costly diadem to his new Empress, Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. In order to mark the birth of their only son, the King of Rome in 1811, Marie-Louise was presented with a parure of jewels. The most valuable piece was a magnificent Spartan diadem encrusted with 1,500 diamonds, surrounding four large crown-jewel diamonds. The most valuable one at the front was the "Fleur-du-Pecheur," a 25.53 carat stone from the collection of the Sun King's (Louis XIV) dynasty, ousted by the French Revolution. The diadem was designed and made by the Parisian jeweler F.R. Nitot, who charged the Emperor nearly one million francs.

The British Royal Court

While Napoleon was indulging in the purchase of illustrious jewels in France, a succession of Hanoverian Kings in England contented themselves with hiring the jewels for each coronation and leaving the crowns stripped and bare during their reigns. The young Queen Victoria, the niece of George IV, made a decisive change to this practice. She not only ordered a permanent crown to be made, but also started a collection of priceless tiaras, still owned by members of the British Royal Family today.

The nineteenth century also affirmed a trend of bridal purity expressed in dress. In Britain, Queen Victoria preferred a demure wreath of orange blossoms to a golden royal tiara when she married her German cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840. Countless brides followed the style of the romantic young Queen, which was accentuated by a white veil, symbol of virginity and chastity. Queen Victoria, crowned at the age of eighteen, appreciated floral symbolism. Her favorite diamond diadem had motifs of roses, shamrocks, and thistles, symbolizing her sovereignty over England, Ireland, and Scotland. This famous coronation circlet, made by Messr Rundell with hired diamonds in 1820, had belonged to her uncle, King George IV. Victoria had it restored and set permanently with her own diamonds, thus making it one of the most important heirlooms of the British Royal family. The present Queen Elizabeth II is portrayed wearing it on a series of British postage stamps.

The British Royal Collection of Precious Tiaras

The most splendid of all was the brilliant regal tiara especially made for Queen Victoria at the height of her

reign in 1853. This diamond diadem, made by the royal jeweler Messr Garrard & Co, was to surpass all others in beauty and extravagance. Records in the company's ledger show that over 2,000 precious stones had been used to make this splendid tiara. The gems were set, forming a trellis framework around the central jewel, the most legendary of all diamonds, the Koh-i-noor or "Mountain of Light." This ancient, Indian diamond, weighing 186 carats, had been presented to the Queen by the Honorable East India Company after the Punjab fell under the rule of the British Crown in 1849. The five-thousand-year-old Koh-i-noor diamond was supposed to bring bad luck to all male rulers, but it had no such effect on Queen Victoria or on Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who had the stone reset into her own crown in 1938.

The regal Indian or opal tiara was also made for Queen Victoria in 1853. This oriental-style tiara was set with 2,600 diamonds surrounding seventeen large opals. Fifty years later, in 1902, Queen Victoria's daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra, considered opals unlucky and had them replaced with eleven rubies, which had been a Maharajah's gift to her husband, the Prince of Wales, in 1875.

Another noteworthy diadem in the Royal Collection is the Scroll and Collet Spike Tiara, Queen Mary's wedding gift in 1911, affectionately known as "Granny's tiara." Made in 1893, this piece of jewelry has 27 graduating brilliants, all worked into a collet setting and topped by upstanding pearl spikes.

The Tear Drop Tiara is distinguished by its interlacing circles. Acquired by Queen Mary from the Russian Imperial family in 1921, its large drop pearls, which can be exchanged with emeralds or other precious gems, are surrounded by circles set with diamonds. Queen Elizabeth II inherited this tiara when her grandmother died in 1953 and still wears it on state occasions.

The Hanoverian Fringe Tiara is dated 1830 and was a favorite of Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The brilliants are an heirloom from King George III and were mounted in a special way, so that the tiara could also be worn as a necklace. Princess Elizabeth wore it as a tiara on her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947.

Very similar in style is the Russian Fringe Tiara. Shaped like a Kokoshink (the stiff halo-shaped peasant's headdress of Sythian origin), the tiara was presented to Princess Alexandra by a subscription of ladies of society on her Silver Wedding Jubilee, in 1888.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, adored diamonds and pearls as much as Queen Victoria once did. As the young Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, she was often photographed wearing a Bandeau Tiara, worn deep down over her forehead, fitting the 1920s style and fashion. In later years, as Queen Elizabeth, she preferred wearing her tiaras high, embedded in her hairstyle. One of her favorites was the so-called "Modern Tiara," made for her from South African diamonds that had been presented to King Edward VII by de Beers in 1901. This diadem was designed in the form of a complete symmetrical circlet with a fleur-de-lis at the center front. Made by the French jeweler Cartier in 1953, the pattern, with three rows of interlocking diamonds, forming diamond-studded hexagons, is easily recognizable.

Tradition dictated that aristocratic ladies were married wearing their family tiara and Lady Diana, choosing her family's Spencer Tiara, was no exception when she married Prince Charles in 1981. The Queen presented her with another precious diadem as a wedding present, the Bow Knot Tiara, which had been designed for Queen Mary in 1914. Designed by the royal jeweler Garrards of London, it had nineteen drop pearls, each encircled by diamonds. The top edge is decorated with a row of delicate diamond bows, representing lover's knots, a motif first used on rings by the Romans.

Twentieth-Century Tiaras

During the twentieth century, Europe changed into a more egalitarian society, but, curiously, tiaras with their regal allure, survived. The turn of the century was a time of change and experimentation in all art forms, and jewelry was no exception. Art Nouveau and its parallel movement in Britain, called Arts and Crafts, evolved as a reaction to the Industrial Age of the previous century and aimed to restore the importance of individual craftsmanship. The Vienna Secession, founded by Gustav Klimt in 1897, was linked to the Wiener Werkstatten famous for art objects, including Jugendstil tiaras. The inspiration for many pieces of jewelry was based on a new discovery of nature, expressed in a new, modern style. In Britain, Frederick Partridge (1877–1942), used cow's horn, rock crystals, and enamels for making his highly original and charming tiaras. René Lalique (1860–1945), a leading Parisian designer of jewelry of the same period, broke with traditional conventions of symmetry and designed charming tiaras inspired by trees, shrubs, and insects, using ivory, horn, and cast glass. He pioneered a new technique called plique à jour, a development from cloisonné enamel, which allowed transparency on leaves, petals, and insect wings.

Art Nouveau jewelry was prolific in Paris and contributed to the fashion for head ornaments in great diversity. Famous designers included Henri Vever, René Foy, and La Maison Boucheron, who all exhibited exquisite tiaras at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, in 1900. Fantasy was allowed to run wild and some head-pieces were crafted in pierced gold lace and enameled peacock feathers. Jewelry and tiaras had attained the status of art rather than function, with many pieces too avant-garde and costly to find a buyer. Sadly, much was later taken apart and did not survive for posterity.

As fashion and couture established their power, many designers used tiaras to instill fantasy into their collections. Coco Chanel designed a whole range of tiaras in 1932 and adorned her models with comets and stars hung over their foreheads. The Duke of Westminster, who was a friend of Chanel, might have been inspired by her when he ordered a diamond tiara from the Maison Lacloche in Paris. It was to be a present to his forth wife, Loelia, who set a new fashion by wearing this precious piece of Art Deco jewelry straight, from ear to ear, framing her face. The design had a strong Chinese influence with a detachable rivière necklace built in at the outer border.

In Britain, the coronation of King George VI in 1937 was a perfect catalyst for the ordering of new tiaras, and Cartier in Paris is said to have created 27 different Art Deco tiaras for this high-society event. The war years and the following decades of youth culture resulted in a decline of regal headdresses, but silver-screen film stars, such as Audrey Hepburn, kept glamour alive. She looked ravishing as a runaway princess wearing a tiara in Billy Wyler's film Roman Holiday, filmed in 1953, and again, as Natasha in Tolstoy's epic story War and Peace, filmed in 1955.

Ironically, the 1970s Punk rebellion brought tiaras back as fashion designer statements, notably reinvented by Vivienne Westwood, who is said to have been seen wearing her Italian coral diadem, bicycling around London. Westwood used tiaras on her celebrated catwalk shows, recreating ancient Spartan diadems as well as designing brightly colored plastic ones. The most original design, created in 1997 was a diamond-encrusted dog's bone with a bow, which might have been inspired by the love knots of the Victorian era.

Gianni Versace was a designer who celebrated glamour, and tiaras had to be included in his collections. In 1996, he won a de Beers Award with a diamond tiara, which was consequently worn by pop-star Madonna, who like many modern brides, might live their lives in jeans and T-shirts, but chose a regal style of dress for their wedding day.

Philip Treacy, London's top millinery designer, has created a number of modern tiara headpieces using metal, crystals, and feathers in his extravagant creative designs. He seems to be leading a number of artists and craftsmen, who like to express their creativity in tiaras, including Wendy Ramshaw, Jan Mandel, Jan Yager, and Viscount Linley (who, being a high-class carpenter, designed a wooden one). Many spectacular new designs were on show in London's Victoria & Albert Museum, in a special exhibition marking the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 2002.

The fashion of wearing precious tiaras has fluctuated with history and gone in tandem with society's appetite for egalitarianism or elitism, but it has not vanished. The downfall of many European monarchies might have diminished its importance, but curiously, the notion of elitism and the dream of being a princess, even for one day, has continued to seduce generations and the tiara has remained in fashion, in its classical styles as well as in new art forms.

Outward Signs of Kingship

A crown is the most precious and important symbol of royalty. Usually made of solid gold and richly embellished with ornamental jewelry, a crown bestows power and status to kings, queens, and emperors. The basic circular design was derived from the earlier versions of fillets, circlets, and diadems. Some crowns are characterized by arches, which can be topped with a monde, a globular ornament under a "cross formée." Crowns, like diadems and tiaras, were often modified and redesigned for political or economic reasons, and so was the St. Edward's Crown, the oldest of all British crowns, that originated from the ancient Crown of England, dating back to the ninth century. Lined with a "Cap of State" of purple velvet, it weighs four pounds and is set with 440 gemstones. It is part of the collection of British Royal Crown Jewels kept in the Tower of London.

The "Reichskrone," or crown of the Holy Roman Empire, has an important political as well as a religious history. Also known as the Crown of Charlemagne, the legendary King of the Franks, crowned Roman emperor by the Pope in 752, it consists of eight gold plates decorated with precious gems and biblical images. As "Kaiserkrone des heiligen romischen Reiches deutscher Nation," it was in the possession of the Habsburgs from 1273 to 1806 and is still kept in the Imperial Schatzkammer in Vienna, Austria.

A more modern crown is the British Imperial State Crown, made in 1838 for Queen Victoria and worn by each British sovereign since. The gold, jeweled circlet with four arches and topped with a monde and a "cross formée," is encrusted with one of the most valuable diamonds in the world, the Cullinan or "The Second Star of Africa," weighing 309 carats. In her later years, Queen Victoria developed a very personal and less ostentatious style and favored a miniature design of the large Coronation Crown. Perched high on her head with a lace veil draped down over her back, this silhouette of the Queen is the one easily recognized by future generations.

Coronets are smaller crowns worn by the British nobility of lower ranks. The highest and most important coronet belongs to the Prince of Wales, followed by various circlets for different members of the aristocracy. Their shapes and decorations follow a strict hierarchy. A Duke's circlet is adorned with eight strawberry leaves, a Marquess's has four strawberries and four pearls, an Earl's has eight pearled rays, alternating with eight strawberry leaves, a Viscount has sixteen pearls and a Baron has just six pearls. They are only worn on the ceremonial occasion of the coronation of a new sovereign.

See alsoJewelry; Royal and Aristocratic Dress; Wedding Costume .


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Susie Hopkins