Will future generations remember ours as the first and last era in which everyone except royalty spurned magnificent head ornaments? Geoffrey C. Munn’s authoritative account of the tiara, that most gorgeous of jewels, suggests that this is so. We are today festooned with cheap, machine-made necklaces, earrings, plastic spectacles, pins and studs made of base metal – to say nothing of exotic eyebrow and tongue piercings. And there is evidently nothing that we will not do to our hair. Except, it seems, use it to hold up an astonishing sunburst tiara consisting of 577 brilliant and rose-cut diamonds, set in gold and mounted on platinum, a gigantic 71-carat jonquil-colored cushion-cut diamond suspended in the centre, so as to reflect the slightest movement of the head (Cartier, Paris, 1921). What went wrong?

There is a part of each of us, I submit, which we may suppress in horror on account of colonial misdeeds, that is nevertheless drawn to spectacular jewels. And they don’t come larger than the mountainous Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco diadems that strobe through this seductive, gorgeously illustrated book. One sees them as they are today, carefully lit and photographed in sumptuous Sotheby-color. One also sees them attached to the head of their original owners, mainly European royalty, bony-ankled English peeresses and the daughters of American millionaires, upon whom huge sums were expended in the showrooms of Boucheron, Garrard, and Chaumet.

On the whole, it is not difficult to see why limitlessly wealthy women avoided slender circlets with modest key patterns and uncomplicated forget-me-nots. Simplicity was beside the point; plainness almost embarrassing. In the words of the Miami architect Morris Lapidus, a trenchant critic of Modernist design, “Less is more? Less is not more. Less is nothing.” No, a good number of exceedingly large, flawless stones, combined with fat pearls (ancient if possible), set among hundreds of smaller diamonds and elevated as far as possible above the head without toppling forward into the soup, was obviously preferable – the whole ingeniously wrought into graduated pinnacles, complex openwork lattices of oak or strawberry or lotus leaves, or sheaves of wheat. Handy, too, if the whole thing collapsed into separate jewels to wear on less formal occasions. (Tiaras were never worn in hotels or restaurants.)

Sometimes really colossal tiaras were made from stones extracted from family jewels that languished in unfashionable settings or were in need of a jolly good clean. Fancy-colored diamonds were popular, mainly pink and yellow, especially the huge ones, say 35 carats and above.

The tiara reached its zenith between the 1880s and World War I, when the supply of gems from European colonies in Africa and Asia was uninterrupted, and techniques of cutting and setting them reached new heights of sophistication. The demand for magnificent jewels was driven by Court protocol, from which fashionable society took its lead. Coronation years inevitably brought a rush of orders. Tiaras always cost a fortune, and those possessed of a fortune found it impossible to do without a tiara. This happy state of affairs kept the jewelers in business.

Unlike most other art forms, it was difficult to propel the tiara past splendor into the realm of absurd vulgarity, since it cost so much money to test the limits. However, Van Cleef and Arpels evidently came close with their fabulous parure of immense baguette-, brilliant- and step-cut diamonds that was created for the Empress Fawzia of Iran. It must have weighed something like a motorcycle helmet, and surviving photographs attest to her overwhelming discomfort, and to its exceptional ugliness.

Tiaras could be dangerous. At a banquet in Hyderabad, Lady Curzon was shocked when small birds alighted on her whopper. The Duke of Portland inadvertently sat on his wife’s, but escaped injury. Prior to the Coronation of King Edward VII at Westminster Abbey in 1902, the Marchioness of Londonderry withdrew to the peeresses’ lavatory and, stooping to adjust her train, lost her tiara in the pan. She required a set of forceps to get it back.

Has cosmetic surgery replaced the tiara? It seems possible. Believe it or not, new cheek bones cost about as much today as tiaras cost 100 years ago, but in my opinion you don’t get the same return.

Angus Trumble is curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art. He’s into royalty, but has never played a game of “Pretty Pretty Princess” – he swears!