When men wear jewellery

Quietly, men’s jewellery is moving into the mainstream

One day, after my wife Harriet had left for the office, I walked into our bathroom and found that she had left a long, gold-coloured necklace hanging on a cupboard door. It was made of circular links, interspersed with big-toe sized lumps of pale blue, see-through plastic. I took it off the cupboard and hung it around my neck, then inspected myself in the mirror above the bath. It nearly reached my waist. The blue plastic matched my shirt, and my eyes. The gold brightened everything up. Putting the necklace on felt thrillingly transgressive—like sitting on the throne in the king’s absence. Mysterious forces compelled me to swagger. But I stayed away from the windows, and wondered what people might say if I wore it to the corner shop. Suddenly overcome with the mortifying memory of being told, in the school playground, that I was wearing the “wrong” sportswear brands, I took off the necklace and hung it up again.

Clothes don’t maketh man. Necklaces do. Or so you might think, to judge by the cover of a British Sunday supplement late last year. This showed the cookery writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wearing nothing but jewellery. His bottom half hidden in a river as he wrestled with a salmon, his top half naked save for a pendant—a sort of metal arrow head on a thong—that somehow conveyed a singular message: I hunt, I catch, I feed. And I do quite a bit of telly.

Men’s attitudes to jewellery are on the move. After perhaps 200 years (at least in the West) of confinement to cufflinks, tiepins and timepieces, they are experimenting with the kind of adornment hitherto regarded as exclusively feminine. Theo Fennell, a London designer whose £3,000 skull rings are much loved by rock stars, has a new line of men’s rings called Heroes and Villains—sculpted silver knuckledusters bearing the disconcerting likeness of, among others, Gandhi, Lincoln, Lenin and Mao. A quarter of Tresor Paris’s range of £150-ish beaded friendship bracelets, studded with “Czech crystals”, are designed for men; in just a year, this new British company has found a home in roughly 1,000 outlets. The Goldsmiths’ Company, which has been responsible for hallmarking precious metals in London since the 14th century, reports an upsurge of interest in “men’s brooches”: the pictures in its current brochure show city lapels adorned with architectural chunks of gold and palladium by the likes of Vicki Ambery-Smith and Barbara Christie.

It’s a business that’s worth a lot. According to the market researchers Euromonitor, in 2005 British men bought £136m-worth of luxury jewellery; by 2010, despite the recession, this had gone up to £168m. The greatest increase was not in safely conservative watches, either, but bracelets and—yes, Hugh—necklaces. Laura McCreddie, the editor of Retail Jewellery magazine, claims that this is one of the most noticeable trends of the past few years; it has now reached a point where “star designers like Tomasz Donocik start out making men’s jewellery, and only afterwards move into women’s—rather than the other way round, as always used to be the case.”

But who, exactly, is wearing it? Male hero-figures have experimented with jewellery for years. The England cricketer Derek Pringle wore an earring as long ago as 1982; cue much huffing and puffing at Lord’s from cricket-loving readers of the Daily Telegraph—who must have been even more astonished when Pringle turned up, many years later, as their cricket correspondent. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards wears a skull ring that features so prominently on the cover of his autobiography it almost replaces his eye. The book has sold a million copies, which means that picture is lying around in a million homes, subtly altering the atmosphere the way Keith’s music once did. There are few more macho figures than the actor Gerard Butler—he of “300”, every teenage boy’s favourite action movie—yet he has been photographed wearing multiple man-bangles. And the dominance of hip-hop has put the jewel-encrusted male at the top of the pop ladder for the past two decades. A man in his 20s can’t remember a time when male bling wasn’t part of the landscape.

And yet…Using Twitter, I put out a call to men who wear jewellery to tell me what they wear, and why. My tweet was retweeted to several thousand people; only a handful got back to me. I wouldn’t want to generalise about those who took the trouble to answer, but note that several identified themselves as science-fiction enthusiasts, one as a “plain-clothes punk philosopher” and another as a practitioner of reiki. Not absolutely mainstream types, then. And although I was told about a rising Conservative MP who wears a friendship bracelet under his cuff, perhaps the telling thing is not that he wears it, but where: out of sight.

Men’s jewellery is not a new idea: historically, men all over the world have worn earrings, necklaces, bracelets, pendants, chains, amulets, rings and more. In “The Iliad”, the blacksmith god Hephaistos speaks of having made many intricate items, “pins that bend back, curved clasps, cups, necklaces”. (In the film “Troy”, Brad Pitt went into battle, and into bed, wearing a shop-full of blueish jewellery.) But just because somebody else has worn something—on television, in ancient history, or in a faraway land—doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us to follow suit. If you are not a trendsetter, you may not welcome the idea of wearing a necklace. But it takes even greater gumption to ignore fashion altogether. When every other man is wearing a powdered wig, or a bowler hat, you feel naked without one. Plainly, the time has not arrived yet when a man can expect to feel naked if he doesn’t own any jewellery—but is it time for men who have none to start experimenting?

On the internet, you’ll find many websites offering advice on what kinds of jewellery men should wear. But there’s often a contradiction between the underlying message—that a man should feel comfortable enough in himself to wear whatever he wants—and the specific advice (“a ring or bracelet can give your image a positive boost”). If a man isn’t confident in himself, his image won’t get much of a boost from a ring, a bracelet, or even both. And if he is confident in himself, he may even get away with the things those websites abjure, as when one of them warns: “Don’t wear yellow gold with a red ruby and a blue suit: you’ll look like a clown.”

After browsing rather too many of these sites, I wondered: how do I find the kind of jewellery that might mean something to me? It was time to try things on. I went first to the upmarket shops on Bond Street. I’d been told that Hugo Boss sells men’s jewellery, so I walked into their branch and asked an assistant to show me some. There followed a bit of a misunderstanding. She indicated a case containing pieces that were large and brightly coloured. One was a necklace with dangling feathers. This isn’t the kind of thing you would wear to the office, I ventured. Oh, no, she replied. “This is for parties. You could wear this necklace, perhaps with these earrings.” They were thin, but dangled about two inches from the ear.

Involuntarily, I reddened. “I’m really surprised,” I said. “I had no idea men were wearing such flamboyant jewellery.”

She looked at me for a second, then said: “But this is for women.”

A young designer, William Cheshire, told me it’s hard for men to walk into a jeweller’s and stand in front of a mirror trying stuff on. Indeed. “If it was me,” he said, “I would get very hot and uncomfortable. That’s why we sell online. Or people come to the studio and try things on. I give them advice on what else they could try. They suddenly open up and it’s a lot easier for them. I’ve seen it happen again and again.”

I’m not sure how much I need to “open up” and become “easier” about wearing jewellery. If I did, would that only be to serve the needs of an industry that is struggling to sell enough high-end pieces to its existing customer base? The soaring price of gold has led jewellers to turn to silver and other materials. “There is a place for really well-made silver jewellery,” Theo Fennell insists, brightly. “It can last for hundreds of years.” Others are branching out into still cheaper materials that can be sold for other benefits, such as the supposed healing qualities of the stones. “When I designed a collection for Mont Blanc we used a lot of haematite,” says Tomasz Donocik. “It is a very masculine stone. It apparently makes you very assertive.”

So, assertively, I tried another department store, Liberty. “We have a creative type of person shopping here,” said Marco Guabello, an assistant in menswear. “But in general, men go for things that are not too bling. They buy new pieces that look older, a bit oxidised. It’s almost as if men wear jewellery to dress down, while women wear it to dress up.” He showed me a case containing an assortment of heavily blackened silver pendants, with keys, fox heads, crosses, anchors, shamrocks, skulls and the words “carpe diem”. These were by a brand called Pyrrha, and cost between £130 and £200. I liked them a lot, but didn’t feel ready to be a medallion man.

At Hatton Garden, most of the shops are devoted to flogging engagement rings. But A.R. Ullman contained an amazing treasury of second-hand items. Inside, I asked its director, Jeffrey Pinkus, what kinds of things men tended to buy for themselves. He took out a tray of signet rings for me to examine, and suggested I might get my family crest engraved on one. The ring would cost about £300, he said, and the engraving nearly as much again. Perhaps sensing that I have no family crest, he handed me a fat book full of designs to choose from.

I suddenly remembered that my grandfather wore a signet ring. Looking back, I wonder who was the more flamboyant, my grandfather or me? But wearing a signet ring, even with a crest, doesn’t necessarily indicate flamboyance. Thomas Lawrence is a 26-year-old financier. He wears a ring with the combined crests of his father’s and mother’s families. It was an 18th-birthday present. “What does it say about me that I wear a signet ring?” he says. “Something that you could argue celebrates inequality and entrenched privilege? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that. It is something I think about. I know what the stereo-typical signet-ring wearer is like and I know I’m not him. My reasons for wearing it are more innocent—sentimentality, familial pride, an element of vanity.”

I liked Lawrence, and hope that if I wear jewellery—or anything else—it will be in the same spirit. But what, specifically, to wear? I already have a wedding ring. Links of London advises male customers to “update last year’s festival wardrobe” with one of its woven thread and sterling silver wristbands: not for me, thanks. When I was young, I did have my ear pierced, but I stopped wearing anything in it soon after leaving university. (Though recently I interviewed the head of an electricity company, who was wearing an earring.)

The British jewellery dealer Tony Gordon regularly wears brooches, and feels he knows what they say about him: “they say I’m interesting, intellectual and hopefully sexy.” Well, he is a jewellery dealer. More surprising, perhaps, is that he regularly sells brooches to “straight men…I have a lot of architect clients who say a brooch helps them stand out from the crowd, though they do prefer to call them badges.” This got me thinking. I always enjoyed wearing badges I’d earned in the Scouts: they showed that I had achieved something. Could I find something like that? Could I get somebody to make badges? If so, which talent, trait or dubious achievement would I choose to commemorate? I’m a writer, but also a husband and a father. I paint, and play the piano. I cook, and do a few other things too. A couple of years ago, I made an entire outfit for myself, using a treadle-powered sewing machine. But I’m not sure I could get away with a golden Singer pinned to my chest.

I don’t often wear cufflinks. I could wear a ring, but I wouldn’t be happy wearing one of Fennell’s Mao rings: he was a mass murderer. Nor would I want a skull ring; virtually every jeweller catering to men offers some kind of skull, and it seems corny. Vivienne Westwood offers some skull-free items, such as signet rings (£195) with the Westwood logo. But I find this slightly depressing. What happened to the punk ethos of self-expression? How does a Westwood-branded signet ring add individuality? In what way is it better than having “Marks & Spencer” tattooed on your forehead?

If I do wear a signet ring, it won’t have a brand name, and it won’t feature somebody else’s family crest. I’ll draw my own design—perhaps a family portrait. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to experiment, by raiding my wife’s collection. Not the necklace: don’t be silly. And not a bracelet, though I see that Fearnley-Whittingstall also wears one of those. I did try, but it clattered too much as I typed.

Instead, I have found a silver ring Harriet wore when we met at university. It’s fashionably blackened from neglect, relatively simple, and about the same size as a signet. I’ve worn it for a week now, tapping out tunes on my coffee cup with it, and watching it glint as my hands move around the keyboard, typing this story. I can’t imagine what people may think of me for wearing it, but my reasons are innocent: sentimentality, familial pride and a teeny element of vanity. Only one important issue remains to be decided. And that is: where to find the right jewellery box?

First published in Intelligent Life, March/April 2012