Friday, February 1, 2013

Tiara Time

Driving home from volunteering at the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society in Vineland, New Jersey, a few weeks ago, I convinced my passengers we needed to stop at an antique mall I had spied a few days ago on the way into New Jersey.

There, I became a princess.

Every girl dreams of being a princess, or so the saying goes. I am no exception to this rule. I have resisted writing about my penchant for jewels (including the jewelry of royals and aristocrats) for some time now, fearful that you (my dear reader) might think I was too materialistic.

Nicole, grinning in front of the famed Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian (May 2012)
But I study material culture, and so being materialistic is part of the job description.

Within the first five minutes of the visit, I had spied a tiara inside a locked case to the right of the door. Its rhinestones, sequins, and beads, lined with faded pink silk, glimmered and glinted in the light; the tiara, nestled on top of otherwise low-quality and uninteresting modern costume jewelry, begged to be examined.

But the tiara's price tag was turned upside-down (rarely a good sign), so I was unsure as to the asking price and turned off temporarily from investigating further. I also knew little of the market value of what I guessed might be a circa 1930-1950 tiara, so I had no informed point of monetary reference. And I had just purchased some bling at the local mall the night before.

Nicole in New Jersey with a mall kiosk-grade bandeau tiara and large ring (it's a long story, but trust me when I tell you that it will help me complete my dissertation) (January 2013)
Was it worth the effort to inquire for the case key? Did I need two tiaras?

I breezed through the rest of the co-op and found little else of interest save one charming photo-postcard. After paying for the postcard, my colleagues and I lingered long enough for me to warm up to the co-op owner and ask about the tiara. She handed me the case key and sent me to the front of the store (to my shock, unescorted!) to satisfy my curiosity.

Yep, it was as nifty in my hands as it appeared from outside the case. The dealer had labeled it has having been made between the 1920s and 40s by a Broadway costumer named Mme Berthé. The dealer must know what she's talking about, I thought. But I was not ready to fork over the asking price.

And so the co-op owner, very bubbly and friendly by this time, encouraged me to talk to the dealer over the phone (not something I typically enjoy doing, but what the heck). I got her to come down by 25%. It was still a substantial sum, but the time I missed out on a rhinestone tiara when I was a kid played over in the back of my head as I vacillated between "buy it!" and "what are you thinking?"

"You should definitely buy it," one of my colleagues exclaimed encouragingly.

Before I knew it, the kindly co-op owner wrapped the tiara in hot pink tissue paper, laid it carefully inside a gold Estée Lauder box, and, giggling like a schoolgirl, sprinkled red, pink, white, and black Valentine's confetti all over the pretty package. It was time to go home.

Tyler took the purchase in stride, and I got busy researching this Mme Berthé. Based on what limited information I could find about her, she seems to have existed, but I have no idea whether she made the tiara. How did the dealer know? I may try to get in touch with her later this week.

In the mean time, I started digging into vintage accessory sources online. This was a whole new world to me. I found one so-called "wedding" tiara on eBay that was constructed in a similar way: metal rim at bottom edge, sewn on to the lining of the tiara. The seller had dated it to the 1930s. But aside from the construction similarities, the eBay item did not resemble my tiara in design.

What now? I did what any girl in the social media age would do and crowd sourced it on a forum run by the Vintage Fashion Guild. Based on the responses to existing posts, the individuals who participated in this forum seemed to know their stuff. Within a few hours, I received two thoughtful responses. The individuals reinforced what I had learned in my web surfing. It might have been used for a wedding or as a costume piece, and it was probably made between the 1920s and 1950s.

So at the end of the day, this is a cool vintage find. Against the odds, I will find some uses for it (costume balls, Halloween, etc.).

These vintage pieces have interesting histories, and so do "real" tiaras made from precious metals and stones. Hardly boring glamor accessories, tiaras--or aristocratic jewels more generally--boast fascinating histories. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend the new book by Hugh Roberts called The Queen's Diamonds (2012).

Far more than a glossy, superbly illustrated coffee table book, Roberts painstakingly traces the history of Queen Elizabeth II's diamond collection from Queen Adelaide (1792-1849) (Aunt of Queen Victoria) to the present. Readers learn about the many places from where British Queens have acquired their diamonds, who cut and set them, how Queens acquired them, and who refashioned them and why. In addition to showcasing the jewelry itself, Roberts includes photographs of Queens wearing layers upon layers of diamond jewelry from each generation. Such images showcase how these items passed from one Queen to another and suggest the roles family, genealogy, and tradition play in royals' lives.

I may not have the Queen's diamonds, but these will do.

Further Reading

Hugh Roberts, The Queen's Diamonds (2012)

Diana Scarisbrick, Tiara (2000).

1 comment: