Stray Jewels: a heads up on tiaras
Last updated Aug 6, 2021

Stray Jewels is a monthly column written by BBC Antiques Roadshow jewellery specialist, Susan Rumfitt. Susan started her career working for Christie’s auctioneers in Glasgow before establishing her own jewellery department, The Gallery in Harrogate. In 2006, she joined the Antiques Roadshow and has since built up an extensive knowledge of and passion for fine jewellery. This month, Susan looks at the history of tiaras – and where they are worn today. 

The word tiara is now used to describe a number of types of hair ornaments, however the origins of the tiara go back to the worlds of ancient empires, where they expressed status and supremacy. The popularity of tiaras throughout history is extraordinary, a chance for ladies to impress and dazzle at society events and an opportunity for a bride to really shine as she walks down the aisle.

Today, anyone can wear a tiara and the etiquette about when a tiara is worn is far more relaxed than it was during the 19th and early 20th century, when they were only worn at weddings or white tie events. In 1909 Tatler reported that, “the tiara was now worn on all sorts of unsuitable occasions. Nowadays one sees them at the play, at small parties, and at dinner in restaurants. Then the modern bride expects at least a couple of tiaras amongst her wedding presents and four or five are sometimes seen at smart marriages. There is the story of the woman who returned to London after some time away and found that even those marrying on an income of £500 a year expected a tiara”.

The traditional rules of tiara wearing

This diamond set tiara (c1900) from Tennants can also be worn as a necklace

Ancient etiquette said that a tiara should only be worn for the first time on the occasion of marriage –  symbolic of the loss of innocence and the crowning of love. Tradition also demanded that the bride wore a tiara from her own family’s collection on her wedding day, but thereafter wore only those from her husband’s family.

After Queen Victoria’s wedding, which was held at 3.30pm with celebrations going on well into the night, it became acceptable to wear tiaras from the middle of the afternoon as well as at a morning wedding. However, a tiara was never worn in an hotel.

Famously Princess Margaret broke with tradition by wearing the Poltimore Tiara, on the day of her wedding to Antony Armstrong-Jones which had been purchased from Lord Poltimore in 1959, for £5,500. It was sold again at auction in 2006 for a whopping £926,400.

Tiaras are rising in popularity at auction. A beautiful example appeared in the jewellery sale at Tennants auctioneers in May this year. Dating from 1900 it was composed of diamond set floral scroll drops, set on a band of diamonds. The piece could also be worn as a necklace. It sold for £10,000 against an estimate of £3,000-5,000.

How to wear a tiara

18 carat gold and diamond tiara with satin finish – available to hire from Ogdens

Tiaras must fit properly. They may be sewn into a section of braided hair, or extra pins are used for security. Hair that has not been washed on the day the tiara is worn is better than hair that is washed as it can tend to be too smooth. This also makes it easier to hide the band on which the decoration sits.

Tiara Wearing Today

A Victorian gold and silver tiara set with stars – available to hire from Ogdens

There are increasingly rare occasions these days when tiaras are absolutely essential. However, one must be worn to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the State Opening of Parliament and state receptions for foreign dignitaries. Sir Elton John holds an annual “White Tie and Tiara Party” to raise funds for Aids charities and it is obligatory to wear one to this prestigious event.

Tiaras can of course be worn at private parties as well as weddings and today one can hire a tiara for that special occasion. Ogdens of Harrogate has two tiaras to hire out, both are gorgeous. A delightful 18 carat white gold and diamond tiara which has lovely satin finished flowers, which set off the diamonds beautifully. Or the Victorian 18 carat gold and silver tiara which is made up of diamond set stars, set with 126 diamonds. In Victorian symbolism, star motifs were representative of guidance through stages of life – what a perfect choice for a wedding day.

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