The Restoration of an Antique Tiara

Years ago, an antique tiara hair comb made by Tiffany and Co. came to me for a total restoration. This particular  piece was one of the hair accessories fashionable in the Edwardian era, which lasted from 1901 – 1910. At that time the tiara was the headdress selected by society women for most formal occasions. The hair styles and silhouettes of the period lent themselves to this type of ornamentation.

One of the most popular hair styles of the Edwardian period was known as the Pompadour, after Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) the famous mistress of Louis XV. This was a distinctive puffed style that was popularized by the “Gibson Girl” drawings of famous artist Charles Dana Gibson. It is sometimes referred to as the Gibson Girl coiffure. It was supported at the back of the head and sometimes at the sides as well, by wide hair combs or barrettes, which might be as plain or as fancy as the wearer desired. This particular Tiara would have normally been worn in the front. It was designed in the garland style and constructed by hand of platinum over 18 Karat gold and set with fine old European cut diamonds.

The tortoise shell comb section was very brittle and there was no other option than to replace it. Additionally, the diamond set platinum and gold mountings were broken and some diamonds were missing.

 On the whole, the piece was in dire condition.

The tortoise shell was attached to the diamond set mounting by three gold screws. I removed the broken tortoise shell and made a two part copper mold of the form by forging and raising two sheets of copper and planishing and polishing the two matching mold faces perfectly smooth.

It was  absolutely critical that the curve of new piece match the original exactly.


Tortoiseshell or tortoise shell is a material produced from the shells of the larger species of tortoise and turtle, mainly the hawksbill turtle,( Eretmochelys imbricata) which is an endangered species largely because of its exploitation for the material. The large size, fine color and unusual form of the hawksbill’s scutes made it especially suitable for a variety of objects. Tortoiseshell was widely used from ancient times in the West and in Asia before the invention of synthetic polymers,. The trade was finally banned worldwide under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in 1973.

Fortunately an antique piece of tortoise shell from an 18th century object was in the shop.  It had come off of a piece of furniture that had been damaged beyond all hope of repair.

If I had not already had the broken pieces of  antique shell at the time, I would have simply used horn which is a period appropriate replacement and would look very similar to the original comb. One could also use Delrin which is a trade name for Polyoxymethylene, an engineering thermoplastic used in precision parts requiring high stiffness, low friction and excellent dimensional stability. (We no longer work in horn or Elephant  ivory.

The tortoise shell fragment was soaked in water for a week, boiled in brine, clamped into the copper mold and allowed to dry for more than three weeks…

Meanwhile, I repaired the damage to the mounting, sourced old European cut diamonds, set them into the places where they were missing and re-engraved the settings.

I removed the piece of shell from its mold and checked the piece  every day. When I finally determined that it was stable, I  removed the piece from the mold and sawed the teeth out  by hand. The entire piece was sanded and polished to a high luster, also by hand, and carefully fitted and screwed to the restored garland style mounting.

Looking back, I may have preferred to have matched the wavy style of the teeth on the original comb. I favor Historical preservation over interpretive restoration.  However, the comb’s owner requested the straight style of  teeth for aesthetic reasons. As both styles are historically correct, I could offer no objections to the request.