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Crown Jewels

Lisa Babik, who simply must wear a tiara to her wedding, has 21 artists working on pieces fit--and unfit--for a queen.


A recent art opening in Santa Monica brought out the usual fashion plates. Serious collectors played it cool in expensive duds while the younger set opted for knit ski caps, vintage grandpa shirts or bare backs. There was even one woman in a dramatic tiara with metal spokes capped with delicate pearls jutting several inches from the crown of her head.

That was Lisa Babik. Contrary to appearances, the 33-year-old Babik is not a member of royalty. Nor was she attempting to prove her worthiness to the lovely Prince William. Rather, Babik was celebrating the opening of "Mondo Tiara," a show that will run until Oct. 29 at her 2-year-old gallery-boutique, Sculpture to Wear. Babik conceived the show after a disappointing search for a tiara to wear at her Oct. 15 wedding to Santa Monica art dealer Robert Berman.

"I couldn't find any that I loved or even liked," she said. "They were all so commercial."

So she called on 21 artists from around the world, many of whom she shows regularly, and asked them to create tiaras. She left everything else up to the artists, including an option to craft sculptural, rather than wearable tiaras. The subtitle of the show, in fact, is "Functional/Dysfunctional," ripe for Sarah Ferguson jokes.

Nearly all of the artists chose to create wearable pieces. (Note: Wearable is not synonymous with practical.)

Kiwon Wang of New York used sterling silver and the New York Times in two of her designs. Enid Eriksson of New Zealand employed feathers, copper and crystal. Boston artist Jackie Milad created a pair of eye-catching tiaras, called Dulce (sweet) and Mas Dulce (sweeter). The former is a thin band of sterling accented with towers of translucent rock candy; the latter is a thick band of copper lined with black leather and capped with several honey-filled test tube antennae. "Very Flash Gordon," pronounced one visitor.

Local jewelry designer Kylliki Freyja called the tiara assignment "absolutely perfect, because I had something in mind that didn't fit with a necklace. I was in the divorce process, and when the divorce was final, I felt so free. And I wanted to put it into an art form. So I got from my ex his wedding ring." Freyja's tiara features a 2-inch-tall winged woman wearing a tiara made from the wedding ring. The piece, "I Am Free to Fly," she said, "symbolizes how something that didn't succeed could be turned around."

Barry Salehian, a Los Angeles-based architect and one of three men contributing tiaras to the show, crafted a sleek wood-and-chrome model. "I am taking fairly macho materials and softening them up," he said. "The shapes are fairly feminine." As to where one might wear these tiaras, Salehian proposed "a semiformal event maybe, an awards ceremony, but really not a stuffy event."

Several women who wandered through the gallery on opening night volunteered that they wear tiaras every year on their birthdays. Writer Elana Roston, 33, has a tiara she bought at a drugstore especially for the occasion. The words "Birthday Girl" appear in swirly script. "You're anointed when you wear a tiara," said Roston. "It makes me think of the pre-Raphaelites. It's very feminine."

This is not to suggest that Roston is a fan of all tiaras. The one Babik was wearing as she welcomed the curious throngs into her gallery, said Roston, "looks like a matzo holder." Erica Paige, 33, a producer, said she wears tiaras whenever she can. "I don't believe in tiaras for formal. I'm contrary to that. I think tiaras have a place at the supermarket. I even wore one to New York once on a plane."

"Men were elbowing one another to help her with her bags," vouched her friend. Paige, who said wearing a tiara cheers her up, did admit to getting more than a few "inquisitive looks" on the plane. "People wanted to know what contest I had won. They wanted to know who I was."

Not everyone thinks tiaras should come out of their rarefied environment. The 61-year-old husband of one of the artists (who did not want to give his name) said, "I think the tiaras are silly."

And when confronted with the possibility of women in jeans, T-shirts and tiaras, Maggie Murray, director of museums and galleries at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, said simply, "Let's hope not."

"If you wear one on the street," she said, "I think you'd be giggled at." Nevertheless, she added, she thinks it's possible that tiaras will turn up "at debutante balls and quinceaneras. They have all the elements of turning into a fad. They're an extension of the general trend of hair adornment. . . . There isn't a lot of romance in the world today, and wearing something glittery on your head is a great fantasy. . . ."

And there's a snob factor, too: "There's something about adorning the head," said Murray, "that says, 'I'm better than you are.' " (Certainly this was true for Venus Williams, who wore a tiara-like accessory during her recent U.S. Open finals victory.)

While no tiaras were sold the night of the "Mondo Tiara" opening--they are priced between $250 and $3,000--it should be noted that these mass gallery openings are more about scene than sales.

And perhaps it's for the best.

After all, Babik has yet to decide which of the tiaras she will be wearing in her wedding. "I've narrowed it down to three," she said. All three are more traditional and feminine-looking--two are made of gold and pearls, another of sterling and pearls. Whichever she chooses, she has the enthusiastic backing of her fiance, Berman.

"It's an interesting symbol of self-assurance, confidence and playfulness, all at the same time," he said, admiring his tiara-ed future wife. "You look special, feel special, and act special. It's another piece of jewelry that's underrated, like men wearing hats. Not many men wear hats. But when you do see a man wearing a smart hat, it looks fabulous. . . . Why should monarchy be the only ones who get to wear this piece of jewelry?"

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