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Antiques & Collecting: The age old art of hair dressing; Collecting hair ornaments doesn't mean you have to break the bank with a diamond tiara, discovers Richard Edmonds.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Dressing the hair with ornaments is as old as time. The Ancient Egyptians bound glass beads and gold discs into their dreadlock wigs and the ancient Greeks and Romans used gold and silver hairpins to make the head sparkle.

And so it has gone on through time with the current fashion for braiding strands of coloured ribbon into a single lock of hair, perpetuating a perennially popular theme.

Hair ornaments certainly have a shape that relates to today. Tiaras were worn in Mesopotamia, floral wreaths were used by upper class ancient Greek women, and laurel wreaths and tortoiseshell were worn by Romans who wished to show off their wealth.

Medieval European women wore turbans and ribbons, but combs and hairpins were popular among the wives of wealthy merchants during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is interesting to note that only the fashionable were spotted as they moved through the crowd and so hair ornamentation helped towards an eventual marriage and therefore one can appreciate how important the dressing of hair has been to women throughout fashion history.

Collecting hair ornaments certainly doesn't mean you have to break the bank with a diamond tiara. Some beautiful and reasonably priced items were made in the 19th century when bone, horn and tortoiseshell were set with pastes or real diamonds and gold to set off a woman's crowning glory. But these things vary in quality and price and it is as well to remember that what may have little actual value may well carry the day with sheer style - something that is very much the case with 1920s and 30s celluloid items set with pastes.

Many women a century ago could not afford the beautiful things made by the great jewellers such as Falize or Lalique - things which still fetch a fortune today.They were happy to settle for good design on a budget and they liked Spanish style tortoiseshell combs set with rhinestones or gilt metal which resembled gold.

These things twinkled prettily in a woman's hair under the candlelight and that was the whole point of wearing them.

By the 1670s, Jamaican carvers were exporting sherry-gold and chestnut-coloured tortoiseshell to this country. But the turtle population was hunted to death and a ban was the outcome.

The Hawksbill turtle was most commonly used for ornaments and presumably it was this particular shell which was used by Japanese craftsmen for combs and hairpins which were lacquered with elaborate designs and are very beautiful.

The rise of the retail trade and the opening up in the 19th century of the great department stores in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna targeted an increasingly affluent bourgeoisie who aped their betters.

Hair ornaments were extremely popular at the great European courts set into heavy glossy hair and thousands of women wished to look like the Empress Eugenie, Queen Victoria and all the dozens of princesses and duchesses who had little else to do all day but tart themselves up for endless dinners and balls.

But, as I've said, not every woman could afford the real thing and those jewellery manufacturers who supplied the shops and department stores had to look for alternatives.

And so very nice tiaras were fashioned from pastes set in silver - they resembled diamonds and they made a well-dressed head of hair look very pretty.

Marcasites were used in settings along with coloured glass cut with a facet like precious stones. Steel jewellery was very popular too, inexpensive and effective. There is not a great deal of steel jewellery around these days but a nice example can still be picked up for around pounds 75 (depending, of course, on what the dealer originally paid for it, something which always affects the price).

The early Victorians went in for pearls and coral. Seed pearls were especially favoured in hair ornaments, necklaces, rings and earrings. Coral was also carved into beads and used in a tiara shape.

Sometimes, it appeared in its natural branch form. Victorian women favoured dark red and pale pink coral. If you should happen to come across such a piece on your travels, wipe the pearls and coral carefully with a soft damp cloth. This should restore the original lustre quite effectively and then you can store them in a chamois leather bag.

By the end of the century, Whitby Jet was popular and inexpensive as a hair ornament. But if you had an indulgent husband who was prepared to give you a little more money to spend you might well have bought a set of hair combs where turquoise and tiny rose diamonds made a marvellous combination when set into tortoiseshell and your husband would probably have approved when you sat with dinner guests looking rather fine.

Remember, that at this time the desired feminine affect was upswept hair at the side and the back held in place with the kind of combs and elaborate pins I have just mentioned.

Fortunato Castellani copied the jewellery of the Ancient Etruscans and combined precious stones with beautiful enamel work. His designs can only be described as ravishing.

Castellani also designed bracelets and gold necklaces based on ancient Roman work. He signed his pieces with two capital Cs linked back to back.

Black jewellery was very popular and used as a token of national mourning after the death of Prince Albert (hard to conceive of such a thing in today's egocentric, hard-edged society). Naturally, it was Queen Victoria who started the fashion when she became the Widow of Windsor.

As time moved on, the Arts and Crafts movement used silver and enamels to create some wonderful hair ornaments, necklaces, brooches and rings. Many of these beautiful things were made in Birmingham and were marketed under the Liberty label.

Scour the Birmingham sale rooms if you are looking for examples, and it wouldn't hurt you to begin with Fellows and Sons, the Birmingham auctioneers which often carry such lovely things in its catalogues when it have jewellery sales.

Biddle and Webb also has similar treasures from time to time and no doubt they turn up all over the country, but being there at the right moment and getting the item for the right price when others are bidding is the thing to do if you can manage it.

Notes for this feature are courtesy of Nancy Lyons and Antique Collecting.


Above, diamond laurel wreath tiara and left, diamond garland tiara in the 18th century style revived in the Edwardian period
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 3, 2001
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