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Women's Jewellery | Past Masters

Hair adornments

Oriental or art deco, platinum or bakelite, decorative hairpins are increasingly desirable – and collected to be worn

October 04 2012
Avril Groom

From red-carpet appearances such as Keira Knightley’s Chanel circlet or French actress Mylène Jampanoï in a diamond Chaumet band to glamorous weddings across the world, the hair ornament is back. The popularity of these items has waxed and waned over the centuries, depending on the hairstyles of the day. Their last heyday ended with the demise of the victory roll wartime hairstyle, but ornament styles are back in the spotlight.

Sophisticated evening chic increasingly requires an up-do, with combs, pins or barrettes. Meanwhile, current catwalk-derived interest in 1920s-inspired looks is placing more focus on the jewelled headband, sometimes with feathers.

Those are the style points, but social change is having an influence, too. “Wealthy clients want to recreate the idea of family jewellery,” says Béatrice de Plinval, curator of the museum and archives at tiara specialist Chaumet. “We have sold many tiaras for weddings, most recently to a family in Belgium, but a spin-off is hair jewels for parties and balls.” These are mainly new pieces, but occasionally the house buys vintage items – such as, currently, a diamond and emerald 1914 aigrette (price on request).

The style of hairpins has varied with fashion, according to auctioneer Kerry Taylor, “from the start of the 19th-century neo-classical Empire styles to vast five-inch combs for the high hair of the 1830s, then smaller combs with Victorian centre partings, followed by beautiful oriental-style combs for piled belle époque hair, and eventually smaller art-deco pins.” Early examples in tortoiseshell, carved with often exotic designs, are, she says, “difficult to find in good condition. We recently sold a 17th-century comb in a case for about £2,000.” By the turn of the 20th century, jewellers were making hair ornaments from gold or silver and stones; acknowledged as one of the finest is an aigrette that art-deco pioneer Paul Iribe designed for his first wife in 1910, containing a 100-carat carved Mughal emerald, which Lucas Rarities is currently selling for £1m.

Such provenance and exalted prices are unusual, except with signed pieces from names such as Tiffany or Lalique. A Lalique comb (circa 1900) in mere horn and enamel fetched $92,500 at Christie’s in New York three years ago. No wonder the house is reviving precious combs. “The original combs were a part of the creative identity of Japanese culture that translated to the West,” says Anne Kazuro, creative director of jewellery at Lalique. “As symbols of femininity and a form of jewellery, they attract interest from both wearers and collectors. The old ones are rare and, typically for Lalique, mix materials such as horn with stones and make between €30,000 and €200,000 at auction.”

Unsigned items, even with precious stones, are comparatively reasonable, says Keith Penton, head of jewellery at Christie’s London. “Good, wearable pieces are popular for weddings and balls,” he says. “In December, we are selling a silver and gold Victorian hairpin with diamond drops en tremblant, which we estimate at £4,000-£6,000, and five years ago, we sold a Georgian transformable set of diamond flower pins with a wire band for £22,500.”

Everyone agrees that, with a few investment exceptions, hair ornaments are bought to wear, so smaller, practical examples with good grip are most popular. Jeweller and dealer Susannah Lovis currently has a pair of diamond barrettes for £3,300 – unusual, she says, “because often one got lost. Many were made because Victorians loved formal dinners, and barrettes suited their hairstyles.” She also makes up hairpins from vintage brooches, a genre popular with collectors such as Robin Heller Moss, chairman of the Buster Foundation in New York. “I’ve always had long hair and been intrigued by hair jewellery,” says Moss. “I started collecting hairpins by Angela Cummings for Tiffany, and met Susannah about 14 years ago. She had a diamond rose brooch on yellow gold that I persuaded her to make into a barrette, and she has since made me many others. They are for wearing and passing on – I gave my daughter two for her wedding and a brooch to my daughter-in-law for hers.”

A vintage fair purchase for her wedding piqued the interest of London-based Hannah Schweiger. “I found a band with three antique diamond brooches threaded on and planned my whole outfit round it,” she says. “It seemed so creative to give jewellery a new life. I’ve always loved picking through antique fairs; now I experiment with pieces I find.”

Combs are the most common decoration, and early‑20th-century bakelite or celluloid ones are collectable at modest prices. “A box of 1920s combs would be about £150 and often prettily carved,” says Taylor. Rosebery’s recently sold three art-deco combs from wedding-dress designer Basia Zarzycka’s collection for £250, while Linda Bee, who trades at Grays Antique Market in London, has a 1900s horn comb with mother of pearl at £150 and a 1920s diamanté aigrette for £195. Gillian Horsup, also at Grays, says even these relatively recent items “are hard to find in good condition, with teeth and paste stones intact, and at £50 to £100 are a good buy”. Large mantilla combs – Bee has one with blue stones at £2,225 – may be harder to wear, but are still collectable. Smaller combs, says Bee, “often come in sets of three to go at the sides and back of rolled up hair” and are just as fashionable now. Today’s up-dos are less formal, but a comb or pin can be a pretty and functional crowning glory.