Know Your Hair Ornaments

Since Antiquity, women (and some men) have adorned their heads and hats with jewelry. From a simple barrette to a glittering tiara, the types of precious hair decorations can vary quite a bit -- and yet there are times when their terms are completely confused over and over again. What's the difference between a coronet and a diadem, for instance? 

Study this list to review the styles antique and vintage jewelry and accessories enthusiasts are most often encounter in terms of hair adornments. Some of these examples carry over to vintage and modern styles as well.

  • 01 of 08

    Aigrette Hair or Hat Ornament

    Aigrette with diamonds, turquoise and colored gemstones
    Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    The aigrette (prounounced ay-gret) is a jeweled hair or hat ornament, originally meant to hold a feather or plume. East Indian jewelry had aigrettes worn in turbans dating back the 12th century, and by the late 17th century the style had spread to Europe. There, in the mid-1700s, they developed a feather shape, as a stylized representation of a plumed headdress.

    Equipped with a pin or slide, they were originally made of diamonds, but colored stones became popular later around the turn of the century. They faded from fashion for much the 1800s, then returned in the late 19th century, with the advent of Rococo Revival and continued to be popular into the 1920s. At that time, they were worn with headbands.

    Aigrettes often had tiny stiff wires or springs that vibrated when the piece moved, adding to the feathery effect. Other common motifs are floral shapes, an entire bird, and - in later pieces - more geometric shapes such as crescents or shooting stars.

  • 02 of 08

    Barrette

    Barrette 14K Gold with Seed Pearl Accents
    Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    In fine jewelry terms, a barrette is an ornament studded with gems and/or made of precious metal that holds the hair in place via a spring fastener, clasp, or pin set in a center bar on the backside (the word derives from the French "barre," or bar). 

    Developed around 1901, it was originally rectangular as the name suggests, but developed a variety of shapes throughout the 20th century. The popularity of jeweled barrettes paralleled the predominance of simpler, shorter hairstyles popular during the Art Deco era in the 1920s - those that couldn't support the combs, tiaras, or other heavy hair ornaments of the past.

    Barrettes have been made of many other materials over time including costume jewelry versions made of natural materials, plastics, and even rhinestone-studded base metal. 

  • 03 of 08

    Hair Comb

    American Tortoiseshell 19th Century Hair Comb
    Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    This is a type of hair ornament affixed via a row of at least three teeth, that can be worn at an angle or upright. These can take various shapes, and be made of any substance (tortoiseshell, ivory, and horn being especially popular in the 19th century). Gem-studded versions date back to the Renaissance, and enameled varieties are quite characteristic of Art Nouveau styles.

    The early 19th century saw technological developments in combs: pivoted heads, which increased the ways in which the comb could be worn and in turn led to the versatile tiara-comb, with a fan-shaped head that could be worn flat or upright.

    Throughout the 1800s, many combs were made to be viewed from the front - though the Spanish mantilla-adorning variety, which is elaborately decorated in the back, is probably a more familiar style for most individuals.

  • 04 of 08

    Coronet

    Coronet Crown belonging to Countess Pauline V. Wurtenberg
    Photo courtesy of invaluable.com

    The coronet is a circular head ornament in the shape of a small crown with pointy spikes and it never possesses convex arches. It was traditionally worn by members of a nation's aristocracy or nobility - anyone below the rank of reigning monarch. Made of precious metals, such as karat gold and platinum, it can be encrusted with various gemstones or enameled; the number of stones or spikes may reflect the wearer's rank.

    Unlike a tiara, a coronet is a full circle and sits on top of the head in a crown-like fashion. Today, a coronet style head ornament may be incorporated as part of a bridal veil.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Diadem

    Gold, enamel and pearl diadem (640-1884) designed by Alessandro Castellani

    An ancient type of head ornament, this is a semi-circular or circular metal band worn around the brow. A diadem is worn across the forehead, unlike a tiara, which rests on the front of the hair. It can be made of a variety of substances and decorated in various ways, but often adorned with pearls and gemstones or enameled.

    Dating back to Antiquity, when they were reserved for royalty only, the earliest varieties often had pendant ornaments hanging down around the ears. More modern versions, in the early 19th century, often had small crown-like points. They are also known as chaplets.

  • 06 of 08

    Hair Pins

    Pair of Navajo Hair Pins with Scalloped Top, Silver, c. 1920s
    Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    In jewelry, hairpins are light, vertical hair ornaments - a very old style, dating back to ancient Greece and China. They come in two varieties: one-point, a single long, straight piece, with a point at one end and often a knob-shaped ornament on the other; and two-point, a U-shaped piece with two blunt ends or prongs. They can be worn at any angle, and often come in pairs.​

    For Victorian ladies, hairpins were not just a novelty, but a necessity - since wearing one's hair fastened or tied up was a sign of respectability in a grown woman.

  • 07 of 08

    Tiara

    The Manchester Tiara by Cartier, c. 1903
    Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    This type of head ornament rests on the top or front of the hair. It usually has semi-circular or curved shape, most often rising to a peak in front. It can be made of any metal and possess any ornamentation, but in fine jewelry terms it is encrusted with gemstones and will reflect styles of the period.

    The tiara originated as a formal piece, though beginning in the 19th century, women other than royalty began to purchase them. Many were made with detachable elements allowing them to be dismantled and worn as necklaces or brooches. In fact, tiaras during this period were sometimes sold with screwdrivers, clasps, and fittings so they could be converted into a necklace and/or brooch.

    Today, tiaras are made in materials ranging from base metals and rhinestones for bridal use to plastics for children's play wear. 

  • 08 of 08

    Tiara-comb

    Tiara-comb, paste brilliants set in gold-topped silver
    © Photo courtesy of The Three Graces (www.georgianjewelry.com)

    A type of head ornament, most likely developed in France in the 1810s, which set a semicircular tiara on a comb. The head rested on recently developed pivots, allowing the ornament to be worn facing in different directions.

    Made of precious metal, and often adorned with pearls or coral, the original versions resembled headbands. Later versions, around the turn of the 20th century, were more crown-like, often consisting of diamonds in intricate garland settings that rose in vertical tiers.

    The Belle Époque tiara-comb could be worn in two ways: with the tortoiseshell comb straight up or with it folded horizontally.