The Aigrette - Unusual Antique Jewelry 1.
Jewelry and especially antique jewelry is not immune from changes. Last week we talked about changes in semantics used to describe antique jewelry. Does jewelry go in and out of fashion like words do? Maybe and then, maybe not. Maybe usage changes. I'm not about to start writing a dictionary, but I've learned about a few kinds of antique jewelry that I did not know existed and I'll share some of them with you, starting today with the Aigrette.
Without knowing what an aigrette is, we can hear that it sounds just like egret. Egrets are birds distinguished by fluffy white plumage and that's exactly what an aigrette is - a jewel that looks like a feather. Aigrettes were worn on the head.
An aigrette might be entirely designed and made to resemble a feather, or it might be a jewel made to hold an actual feather.
Like feathers in nature, an aigrette might be standing upright or it might be curling over to one side. It might be made of any metal, but valuable aigrettes are normally gold or platinum and it might be set with gems, which is most often the case. Many a beautiful aigrettes incorporates an actual feathery plume flaring from a jewelled mount.
An aigrette might be a self-contained jewel that was pinned to a headdress, or it might be attached to a ribbon or comb and worn like a bandeau. From the late Victorian period, aigrettes were often mounted on combs, often made of tortoiseshell. Possibly more versatile than a jewel that had to be sewn onto a headdress - you just stick it in your lavish hairdo.
Aigrettes with real feathers flaring up can be more versatile by changing from a white to a colored feather according to the rest of your dress or occasion. For example, a black feather would be worn as mourning attire. Perhaps you would swop that out for a red feather to match your rubies.
Various colored feathered aigrette.
Any and all gems were used in aigrettes. It is fairly safe to say that diamonds predominate, especially in the early 20th century. While a real feather could never support the weight of a gem, aigrettes we not only set with gems, but often had jewels hanging down from one side. In these cases, the feather did not stand upright, but bent languidly over to one side, in a sensuous curve as though weighed down by the gems. These gems were usually cabochon pear-shaped drops such as gorgeous emeralds and often natural pearls of stunning proportions. These gems added to the spectacular appeal of the aigrette: they often bounced and danced as the wearer moved and they allowed light to pass through them, adding to the glitter and gleam of the jewel and magnetic appeal of the wearer.
Gems on aigrettes were often set 'en tremblant' - set on little springs that also bobbed up and down as the wearer moved and adding to interest by drawing attention to the moving gems.
Aigrettes are usually simple reproductions of feathers, but sometimes they mix metaphors - immitating a feathery sheath of wheat or other object taken from nature. We have seen 'photos of aigrettes that were simply flaring forms that use the feather shape in the vaguest association. (see example in last picture).
Aigrettes can take the place of a tiara or diadem or they can be worn in addition to a tiara or diadem. A really rich parure (set of jewelry) might contain all of these as well as necklaces, bracelets and earrings. There is no law about how many jewels a single person can own or wear, athough there possibly should be laws about poor taste.
Do not assume that aigrettes were only worn by rich white women in Europe. In fact, the best and most beautiful aigrettes were worn for centuries in Persia, Turkey and especially India. A turban ornament in India was called a sarpech, known as a jikka/jiqua/jigha in Persia. The most exquisite head ornaments, these turban and head jewels can be seen in most portraits of the old Mughal Emperors. Some of them with cords for tieing around the head and some with pins to stick into the turban. We can barely perceive the richness of these adornments, let alone dream of seeing them in person. The sarpech was a central adornment in a world that knew untold richness of jewels and gems.
These amazing jewels deserve their own post.
Aigrettes were also worn in the hats of men in the 'West' and let's not forget the simple feather, stuck jauntily into the cap of a less monied man.
Not all turban or hat jewellery is aigrette. Men especially wore jewels of many forms in their hats and headdresses. These were often sewn on to the garment. Today, what we assume are brooches, might very well have originated as a hat ornament.
Perhaps related to aigrettes are Chinese hair ornaments of the 19th century that incorporated the beautiful turquoise feathers of kingfishers. This has also become very, very rare. The birds are threatened and the jewelry has not been made for over 100 years, but enthusiasts collect these gilt / silver pins, sometimes set with fairly secondary gems, coral, enamel and MOP.
Chinese Kingfisher jewellery.
Not all aigrettes are head ornaments. The term aigrette is used to describe rings of a specific bird-like form. They are v-shaped bands, like a bird in flight with outstretched wings. The main stone is mounted at an angle for greater effect, these form an interesting variation of a solitaire or ring created to show off a single stone. Also known as a Josephine Aigrette, the reference being of course to Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, who loved jewelry more than any of us. I have seen a number of variations made by Chaumet in more recent times.
#6968 VCA aigrette ring with turquoise.
Brooches in the form of feathers and more specifically emulating sarpeches have been popular for a long time. See the last picture in this post.
Who wore aigrettes? As we have seen, aigrettes and variations of aigrettes have been worn for centuries in countries such as Persian, Turkey and India. Look at a portrait of Marie Antoinette and notice the aigrette in her hair. Most commonly, we associate aigrettes with the flappers and Art Deco jewelry of the 1920's. During this era, India and Europe came together to join their fashionable jewelry in the form of aigrettes. Art Deco jewellers not only copied many a turban jewel, but often incorporated gems from those jewels in their 'modern' creations. It should be remembered that during the early 20th century, actual feathers were so much the rage, that their collection began to threaten birds with extinction. It is said that this is the reason for founding the Audubon Society.
Last week's post discussed the question of genderfluidity or what we might refer to as Unisex jewelry. Aigrettes have been worn by both men and women. Designs might be more masculine or feminine, but there is always an area of overlap and today, there are no laws restricting what adornment anyone wears.
One of the outstanding features of most aigrettes is the superb workmanship and care taken in their creation. Perhaps this is part of the reason that they are not often made in our machine-do-it-all-as-cheaply-as-possible world. To some extent, most of us will not even see an aigrettes up close and personal, let alone own one. The most we can do is look at them in 'photos. When people who love and appreciate fine jewelry look at the aigrettes of old, our tongues hang out. Knowing how rare and beautiful these jewels are, aigrettes are lusted over by collectors of jewelry to this day.
On the left is a brooch by Cartier in the form of an aigrette/sarpech.
On the right is a stylised aigrette, also by Cartier, using old Mughal gems.
Both of the above items from the Al Thani collection sold by Christies, June 2019.