Continuing Sotheby's series exploring the history of jewelry trends, Sarah Jordan explains the differences between diadems, crowns and tiaras.
Although occasions to wear diamond-encrusted diadems are almost exclusively reserved for royalty, this hasn’t dampened the long-running debate on what makes a diadem unique from a crown or a tiara. An answer is surprisingly difficult to find, and many words are used interchangeably – often depending on the provenance of a piece.
A crown is typically referred to in a ceremonial context, like the Imperial State Crown that forms the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. A tiara, in contrast, could be considered a feminine ornament, designed in a highly-decorative style with more delicate proportions. Some suggest that it is the high centre-point and tapered sides of a tiara that separate it from the shapely uniformity of a diadem; others argue that a diadem is simply a tiara that has been owned or worn by royalty.
Whatever the case may be, it is the regal elegance of diadems and their associations with grand balls of a bygone era that make them especially coveted by collectors. The word originates from the Greek ‘diadein’, meaning ‘to bind around’, and implies an adornment that encircles the entire head. Throughout history diadems have been worn across the forehead or perched on the hairline, often sparkling in diamonds. They typically reflect the broader style of the time in which they were made, such as the Art Nouveau movement of the Edwardian era.
Perhaps the most famous example is the George IV State Diadem, also known as the Diamond Diadem, which was created to be worn over a velvet hat by King George IV during his coronation in 1821. Its openwork silver frame is lined with gold and set with 1,333 white diamonds, a four-carat pale-yellow brilliant-cut diamond and two rows of pearls. Although made for the King, the Diamond Diadem has since only been worn by female royalty, including Queen Adelaide (1830-1837), Queen Alexandra (1901-1910) and now Queen Elizabeth II, who is pictured wearing the Diamond Diadem on postage stamps.