With a new exhibition opening in Tokyo dedicated to the art of Chaumet, the legendary Parisian jewellery house, the tiara is having a moment. From Queen Elisabeth to Courtney Love – not to mention countless Disney princesses, bachelorettes and beauty queens – the tiara’s diverse array of fans proves that it can work for anyone prepared to own the look. Even Rei Kawakubo, the elusive Japanese designer behind Comme des Garcons, paired a rhinestone tiara with a leather biker jacket as guest of honour at last year’s Met Gala. Interestingly, it was reminiscent of those worn by Paris Hilton, who famously quipped that every woman should enter a room as though she’s wearing a tiara – even if she isn’t.
Hilton has a point. A tiara changes the way you carry yourself – even more so if it’s glittering with real diamonds and a provenance. Reserved for the most special occasions – weddings, state events, society balls – tiaras nod to a bygone era of decadence and deference, debutantes and dowries. The recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex is testament to that – and Meghan’s diadem, like so many of the British royal family’s greatest headgear hits, belonged to Queen Mary, who lived through the golden age of Victorian and Edwardian splendour.
In Paris, however, the exclusive world of tiaras is an everyday reality in the rarefied salons of Place Vendôme. Although many jewellers, including Cartier and Garrard, have a history of tiara craftsmanship, none is more closely associated with the item than the proprietor of number 12: Chaumet. Since its inception in 1780, it has made at least 3,500 tiaras – more than any other jeweller in the French capital, if not the world.
As Napoleon’s official court jeweller, Chaumet and its tiaras are inextricably linked with French history. Before the French Revolution, tiaras were rarely seen at the courts of Europe. When Napoleon came to power in 1802, he looked to jewellery – as he did with all applied arts – to assert the political authority that he had won with his sword. Aware that, as ancient Romans had understood, there is no more powerful symbol of rank than a jewel that crowns the head, Napoleon revived the tiara – which comes from ancient Greece – for his Empress Joséphine, complete with neoclassical cameos and patriotic symbols.
By the end of the 1910s, however, society was rapidly changing. New taxes sparked a decline in formal entertaining, which only grew with the economic crash of the 1920s, the relaxing of social attitudes after two world wars, and the dissolution of several European royal dynasties and countless country estates. The death-knell had sounded for tiaras: by then, Chaumet was increasingly repurposing heirlooms, instead of making new ones.
Not so today: with the launch of Les Mondes de Chaumet at Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum (until September 17), it appears a revival is afoot. Drawing together a breathtaking array of pieces from Chaumet’s own archive, as well as from museums and private collectors around the world, the exhibition puts the emphasis on remarkable headpieces. It also celebrates the house’s steadfast relationship with Japan, established during the mid-19th century, when Japonism influenced every aspect of the arts in Europe, and perpetuated by today’s most loyal Chaumet clients, many of whom are based in Japan.
“In the last two or three years, most of our clients have come from Asia. They want something with heritage, style and meaning,” says Chaumet’s chief executive Jean-Marc Mansvelt who oversees an avid clientele. “We usually have two to three orders being made at once – mostly for weddings, as people see tiaras as a coronation of love.” For a custom tiara, he reveals, the starting price is anywhere between €300,000 and €400,000. “From there, it can go up to anything, depending on what it is.”
Your tiara will also take anywhere between nine months and a year-and-a-half to produce, as Chaumet has to create a completely unique design for every client, and make intricate silver-nickel maquettes for fittings. Many of the outstanding headpieces are designed to be transformable, too. Parts can be taken off and worn as earrings, brooches or pendants, a tradition that was introduced in the 19th century – then, as now, giving the super-wealthy more bang for their buck.
Of course, today’s tiara lovers are no longer just aristocrats or brides-to-be. One of Chaumet’s best Chinese clients regularly waltzes over from the Ritz to 12 Place Vendôme wearing her Joséphine-style diamond tiara, with another in her handbag, to browse the salon for inspiration. Another top-tier client is a Taiwanese business magnate, who came to Chaumet to order a spectacular diamond tiara to wear while taking meetings with her all-male board. “She wanted something really powerful,” explains Mansvelt. “It’s about status, and although it was unusual at first, you can totally understand why she would want to wear it in front of a group of men.”
The tiara appears to have entered a bold new era, confirmed by the Insta-worthy launch party of Les Mondes de Chaumet, hosted by the French ambassador to Japan, where many guests wore exquisite headpieces. “This is so clichéd, but it makes you feel like a queen and you stand up a little taller and feel confident and proud,” said the American-Japanese actor Jun Hasegawa, who wore a Joséphine-style tiara with a pear-shaped emerald in her razor-sharp bob. Hasegawa testified that today’s tiaras are lighter than ever – a far cry from the kind of heirlooms the late Princess Diana complained gave her a splitting headache. Contemporary styles, by comparison, could almost double as a glittering headband; they’re even constructed with elastic fastenings at the back instead of the traditional ribbons.“It’s a beautiful feeling. My advice is to style it so that it stands out. You want people to see its beauty, so just wear one tone and no print.
Fellow party guest Yoon Ahn was also keen to put her stamp on tiara style. For the Tokyo-based jewellery designer – fresh from her triumphant debut at Dior Homme with Kim Jones – it’s less about the princess moment and all about punkish subversion. “I like how Hedi Slimane did it for Saint Laurent ” she said, referring to the Courtney Love-inspired tiaras the designer sent down the catwalk in 2015. “I think I would have to make it a bit grunge and wear it with ripped jeans and lots of other jewellery – not so precious.”
What was noticeable about the glittering cast of women at the party was that they were especially prone to selfies – perfect for framing a tiara. Shoes, handbags and bracelets, by comparison, were cropped out of view.
Today, a tiara is a pertinent symbol of grand, unapologetic femininity in both the boardroom and the ballroom. However, if you don’t have a cool half million to spare, simply heed the advice of Coco Chanel . “A woman should mix fake and real,” she once asserted. “The point of jewellery isn’t to make a woman look rich but to adorn her – not the same thing.” So whether it’s rhinestones or the real deal, a 21st-century tiara could well be the perfect addition to your jewellery box.