Tiaras: Glittering regalia for crowned heads or commoners

A circa-1910 convertible diamond tiara-necklace in a floral design, made for Phyllis Elinor Turner to wear at her presentation at court prior to her 1913 marriage, achieved £45,000 (about $54,100) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers

The tiara – a glittering, indulgent headpiece worn by royalty or any woman who wants to feel like a princess – calls to mind images from a fairy tale, but this form of jewelry has an ancient origin. It debuted as a symbol of respect and authority for Roman emperors, who would don a wreath or tiara of laurel leaves made of pounded gold. Champions of the original Olympic games were crowned with a tiara of intertwined olive branches and leaves cut from a sacred tree that grew near the temple of Zeus at Mount Olympus. The word “tiara” actually descends from a Persian description of the high crowns and diadems worn by its royal families.

A tiara festooned with at least 18 carats of diamonds, which was worn by Princess Eugenia at her 1938 wedding to Prince Dominik Radziwill, achieved $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

As centuries passed, the tiara slowly became exclusive to elite and noble women, and it evolved into four styles: the bandeau, the kokoshnik, the halo, and the fringe.

The bandeau tiara is best described as a headband designed to hold the wearer’s hair or veil in place. When Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, married Prince Harry in 2018, her wedding veil was crowned with a diamond and platinum bandeau tiara that previously had been worn by Queen Mary, who sited a diamond brooch at its center. The bandeau style can be traced back to a wreath of myrtle leaves and buds worn by brides at ancient Greek weddings. 

A 19th-century silver and gold amethyst kokoshnik tiara realized £1,300 (about $1,500) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

The kokoshnik tiara is rooted in the medieval-era customs of court officials of the Boyars in Russia, the Baltic States and small Eastern European kingdoms. Their social status depended on the height of the hats they wore, and this rule affected wives and princesses, too. These women signaled their rank and prominence with a large headdress-like tiara called a kokoshnik, which was weighted down with gemstones and diamonds. Today, the kokoshnik can take a smaller, simpler form, yet its distinctive shape and style remains essentially unchangely.

A halo tiara, as the name suggests, completely or almost completely encircles the head of the wearer. The most famous halo tiara of the 21st century was worn by Kate Middleton in her wedding to Prince William, in 2011. A Cartier creation featuring 739 brilliant cut diamonds and 149 baguette diamonds, it was first donned by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1936. She gave the tiara to her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, for her 18th birthday, but the piece found greater favor with Princess Margaret, who wore it for her elder sister’s coronation in 1953.

The fringe tiara is so named because its diamonds and gemstones are arranged upward in rows, not unlike the fringe of a flag. Queen Mary, a keen collector of jewelry, had a fringe tiara made which Princess Elizabeth – now Queen Elizabeth II – borrowed for her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947. The reigning monarch clearly shows a preference for this diamond fringe tiara, having worn it for numerous official photographs and on state occasions. Its distinctive array of brilliant cut diamonds radiates a sense of sophistication fit for a reigning queen.

A diamond tiara topped with three cabochon emeralds weighing 3.51 carats, 10.76 carats, and 3.28 carats respectively, sold for £16,000 (about $19,200) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

Tiaras are exquisite and expensive expressions of the jeweler’s art, but many are built around a surprising secret, one that allows them to transform with ease and grace. 

A Victorian-era 22K gold amethyst jewelry set featuring a tiara, a necklace and a detachable brooch-pin pendant earned $12,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of P.K. Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the not-too-distant past, a tiara served as the cornerstone of a set of official jewelry worn for state or social occasions. Once the tiara was in hand, it would be matched with a separate brooch, bracelet, earrings and a necklace. This suite of jewelry, called a parure, first appeared at the court of King Louis XIV and soon became an indispensable part of a woman’s wardrobe. Parures were scrutinized as mercilessly as gowns. To maintain her status, the wearer had to have the right design, the right gemstones and the right jeweler. Keeping au courant was difficult in the fast-paced world of the royal court.

This circa-1810 kokoshnik-type tiara parure, offered in its original fitted box, sold for $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Case Antiques Inc., Auctions & Appraisals; and LiveAuctioneers

Jewelers solved this problem and soothed the social anxieties of their clients by making tiaras convertible. The most ingeniously designed tiaras that could be broken apart into a separate necklace, brooch, earrings and bracelet. The fully-assembled tiara was suited to the most formal occasions, while its component parts could be worn at intimate dinners, parties, family gatherings and semi-official outings. Convertible tiaras delivered a parure, all in one.

A circa-1850 18K gold and silver diamond tiara that converts to a choker realized €8,000 (about $8,100) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Ansorena and LiveAuctioneers

A notable example of a convertible tiara is the Dutch Emerald Parure Tiara of the Royal Family of the Netherlands. Created in 1899, the royal parure consists of emeralds, natural pearls and diamonds. One tiara can transform into other versions that sport different configurations. 

As you might expect, royal traditions dictate who can wear tiaras, and when. Unmarried girls are forbidden to don them on the notion that youth needs nothing artificial, including gemstones, to compete with its fleeting merits. Only on her wedding day is a high-born woman allowed to place a tiara on her head, and that tiara should be provided by her family. Once married, her husband will give her a new tiara of her own, usually as part of a parure. 

A silver, gold and diamond floral tiara, dating to the early 20th century, achieved £15,000 (about $18,000) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

Decidedly nonroyal couples of the Victorian era embraced the tiara and the rules that came with it. Husbands presented their wives with parures centered on tiaras as engagement or wedding presents until the practice fell out of fashion after World War I. These 19th-century parures, many of which took the forms of convertible tiaras, show up with some frequency at auction. 

A tiara set with rubies, diamonds and pearls in a series of seven graduated foliate motifs attained £12,000 (about $14,400) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

Although you might think a tiara is too fancy for your lifestyle, it delivers practical benefits anyone can appreciate. “Tiaras are unfailingly flattering,” said Claire Scott, head of design for the prestigious British jeweler Garrard & Co. “These mini crowns tend to lengthen necks and straighten backs [and] make even the slouchiest stand taller. It gives you a different feeling, a different posture. That’s something people like. It surprises them.”

Moreover, tiaras need not be made with precious metals and gemstones. They are just as delightful in enamel, coral, onyx or other semi-precious stones.

A white metal tiara sporting more than 20 carats’ worth of diamonds in four different styles of cut sold for $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2017. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

And, because it might need to be said: Yes, every woman deserves to wear a tiara. You don’t have to inherit a title first. You don’t need to be a debutante or a dowager. And you need not be married. Despite their history, tiaras can grace any head.

If you don’t have a tiara of your own yet, don’t worry. Take the advice of socialite Paris Hilton, who suggests that you “always walk around like you have on an invisible tiara.”