Tiaras: A History of Splendour by Geoffrey C. Munn, published by the Antique Collectors’ Club. ISBN 1851493751 £45 hb
WITH acknowledgements pages peppered with thanks to what is left of the crowned heads of Europe, a Serene Highness here, a couple of Majesties there, a few Queens and a great swathe of the aristocracy, plus the assistant obituaries editor of The Times, and Vivienne Westwood, this is a book about one of the most exquisite, regal and fantastical forms of jewellery, fabulous as much for the people who owned them and the often bizarre occasions on which they were worn. It is as much a social history of the tiara as a study in the sources of its design.
Geoffrey Munn is the managing director of Wartski’s, the London firm of art and antique dealers, specialising in fine jewellery and Fabergé. Wartski’s was founded in Llandudno in 1865 and included a colourful clientele, particularly the Marquis of Anglesey, who had a penchant for emerald-set ping-pong shirts. With 400 illustrations, including some splendid archive photography, the ten chapters include Russian and the Russian Style, Court and Social, the Tiara and the Costume Ball, Royal and Imperial France, The Tiara as a Work of Art and Crown Jewels and Royal Collections.
It is well known how accomplished Prince Albert was in many of the arts but maybe less well known was his skill as a jewellery designer, and the cover photograph is of a lovely emerald and diamond diadem designed by Albert for Queen Victoria, and made at a cost of £1150 in 1845. The demands of a rapidly expanding family did not diminish the couple’s enthusiasm for jewellery.
Said Victoria: “We were very busy looking over various pieces of old jewellery of mine, settling to have some reset, in order to add to my fine parures. Albert has such taste and arranges everything for me about my jewels.” And most else, poor Albert.
There are two remarkable photographs by Cecil Beaton in Court and Social of an extremely ancient royal personage, Princess Marie-Louise (1872-1956), a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who lived through six reigns, made a disastrous marriage which was annulled against her will and devoted her life to good causes. In one picture the princess, looking like an ancestral tortoise, is wearing a fabulous and unusual Cartier tiara of diamonds, sapphires and pearls.
The chapter the Tiara and the Costume Ball is delicious: full of mad stories about headdresses made of laurels supporting a diamond-set lyre, surrounded by crotchets and quavers that could be lit up by electricity from a battery hidden in the hair – very Elton John – and of Lady Londonderry going to a ball decked out wearing an exact copy of Maria Theresa’s Imperial crown made from the original jewels; an awesome spectacle in keeping with the awesome character of a woman who “liked to appear at the head of the stairs wearing the ‘family fender’, as she called that nice diamond crown.”
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter is Russia and the Russian style – the kokoshnik is a variant of the traditional headdress and this style has been adapted to the tiara form – which has some moving stories to tell.
After the Revolution the Imperial Family had stitched what jewels they could into their underclothes; still there at the moment of their violent deaths, while Soviet secret police found an imperial diamond weighing 100 carats and a gem-set diadem in two glass jars in a former fish merchant’s basement in Tobolsk. The story of the Youssopov treasure is pure drama.
The last picture in the book is of a heartbreakingly beautiful and left-wing Queen Elizabeth of Belgium (1876-1965) whose interests included yoga, submarines and birds and who is wearing her tiara upside down on her lustrous hair. This seems to fit with current thinking, that with the abolishing of the hereditary peerage and an absence of any conspicuous show of rocks by royals, unless you count Posh and Becks or Madonna, the tiara has become a piece of outlandish and mesmerising social history. One for fashionistas, jewellery designers, dealers and collectors and for those who treasure the bizarre.