CROWNING GLORY: THE AIGRETTE

 A magnificent turban ornament by Cartier made in the 1920s.  The central emerald was an Indian heirloom emerald reset into a neo Indian design that successfully married the best elements of modern Art Deco and traditional Moghul design.

The Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna in the 1780s. She wears an aigrette at the top of her hairstyle, which was inappropriate for a tiara.

The aigrette: not quite a tiara yet and more formal than a jewelled head comb, is an underrated piece of jewellery that does not quite get the attention of it deserves.  However much some may yearn the days where wearing tiaras was de rigueur for some formal occasion, the reality is that even in rarefied circles a woman will only wear one a few times in her life.  An aigrette, however, can be versatile, fun and add a touch of crowning glory to the wearer. 

The first ones almost certainly originated around the 12th century in India as the turban ornaments of Indian rulers, but they did not fully take off in Europe until around the 17th century.  During this time, like their oriental counterparts, they were extravagantly decorated with rare birds’ feathers, and that is how this jewel derived its name- aigrette is the French name for egret, a lesser white heron.  The aigrette’s popularity first peaked towards the end of the 18th century, when they were a more apt hair jewel for the towering hairstyles of the day than a tiara.  As hairstyles became lower after the French Revolution, they fell out of favour and the tiara reigned supreme.  They came back into fashion towards the 1870s, and society ladies considered them indispensable by the 1880s.  They could be more fantastical than tiaras and with all the rage for feathers at this time infinitely more wearable.  They were the perfect accessory for the great costume and masked balls of the age.  The great couturier Worth considered them essential and his former protégé and rival, Paul Poiret, made them his own.  Feathers for aigrettes were supplied by respected specialists and included exotic specimens such as bird of paradise from New Guinea, the Cape ostrich and the Egyptian ibis.  

Design by Chaumet for a ruby and diamond winged aigrette.

The most inventive, noteworthy aigrettes were made by Chaumet, followed a close second by Cartier.  All manner of precious stones and feathers were showcased.  Chaumet embraced the spirit of Art Nouveau by designing one as a pair of soaring wings that could be worn as a pair of brooches.  Not surprisingly, the scope for movement was taken advantage of, and delicate sprays of flowers, insects and wheat ears were teamed with briolettes for trembling naturalism.  As large, gaudy feathers began to fall out of fashion, the feathers themselves began to be represented in precious stones. 

The heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912 wearing a feathered aigrette set with a diamond of a stupendous side.  Round her neck is the infamous Hope diamond.

The First World War inevitably heralded the demise of very grand jewellery.  The clean lines of the flapper, bobbed hair and Art Deco just didn’t lend itself to it.  However, it was perfect for the aigrette.  As was mentioned earlier, not being as formal as a tiara, aigrettes were the finishing touch to a soignée look.  They had a second flowering in the 1920s and 30s, when they were heavily influenced by Cartier’s neo-Indian look.  Very rich, very bored Indian maharajas were ordering masses of jewels from all the great Parisian jewellers: Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Chaumet, amongst many, were busy refashioning great heirloom Indian jewels.  This was successfully married to the best elements of Art Deco and this new style became dominant.  These jewels designed as headdresses for maharajas’ turbans could not but directly influence women’s hair ornaments. 

The Second World War put an effective end to the more frivolous elements of fashion- tiaras were retained to be worn with increasing scarcity to very grand occasions, and the informality of the ensuing decades saw no need for gem studded head ornaments.  However, this is changing with fine and high jewellery heading towards more theatrical territory.  Collectors should be paying more attention to them- the really good ones are still relatively affordable at auction, the best ones being from the Belle Epoque era and which usually have the added bonus of being able to be transformed into a brooch.  Modern jewellers, sadly, have yet to match the technical inventiveness of early 20th century masters.

 

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.