I was prompted to look into the phenomenon of men and jewellery because in a book I’m reading that’s set in ancient Rome, four rings were taken from the hand of a dead senator and dropped in the Tiber (getting rid of identifying objects, of course…). All through the book I read that the Emperor wore a wreath and a huge gold ring, senators wore a gold ring, and slaves and freedmen alike wore wrist cuffs, so at every level of society men wore jewellery almost as much as women did. But in my family, only my son-in-law wears jewellery – a wedding band; not my father, brothers, husband or sons, so this means that I have in my mind that men don’t wear jewellery, but actually that’s completely untrue.
I needed to go further back before I carried on forwards; back to the origins of jewellery, really, to see where it began, and see whether men have always worn jewellery, and why, and that took me to about 110,000 years ago to a necklace of shells found in Israel. No knowing whether it was worn by a man or a woman, but a clear indication that there’s been a significance to jewellery for a jolly long time.
In Africa men have always adorned themselves. It indicated status, power, and wealth, mostly, but it was also full of medicine and good fortune and strength and prowess. The same can be said for South Americans (who had gold long before just about anyone else), the Australian Aboriginals, and the American First Nations. Bone, feathers, teeth, stones, leather, and beads all combined to make powerful adornment for powerful men.
Fast forward to the Egyptians; not only did the Egyptians love jewellery, they were really good at it. Obviously gold was reserved for the Pharaohs and their queens, and the populace had to do with bronze and other sub-metals until silver was imported to Egypt and became available and affordable for the regular citizens. The Egyptians loved coloured stones, but more than just for aesthetics, their stones were very powerful; they protected against illness, brought luck, wealth, and love, and the Egyptian jewellers paid enormous attention to the combination of stones used in their work, especially for the Pharaohs who will have known exactly what they were wearing and why.
In India the significance of jewels was quite different; the maharajas spent an extraordinary amount of money on their jewels, and while jewellery’s main function in India was to make ones status completely clear, there was huge religious significance attached to it too. Different deities were attached to different stones which is why so much Indian jewellery has so many different coloured stones in it. And only the maharajah – and icons in temples – were allowed to wear gold on their feet.
Then we take a giant leap forward to Paris and Napoleon. Paris has always been the beating heart of fashion for the western world, with enormous influence. After the Napoleonic wars the country was broke and people had very tight belts. Swaggering around in jewel encrusted waistcoats and diamond rings became very frowned upon, and men began reducing their jewellery to the bare necessities; one or two rings, a cravat pin, a watch on a chain, perhaps. The recession in men’s jewellery had begun in the west. Fashions change and men moved away from silky knickerbockers and buckle shoes and into more austere suits – here come the Victorians – and their jewellery reduced even more; a signet ring and fob watch would do.
And that’s where it stayed for quite a long time; a signet ring to show off your family connections, and a nice watch – cufflinks were very popular from about the 20s – but more money was being spent on women’s adornment than men’s, by a long way. But men have never stopped wearing jewellery, and it seems to be having a resurgence in popularity again. Performers are notorious for their bling… Liberace, Elvis, Elton John… but I think that was more to do with eccentricity (and a whole lot of spending money) than power and status. Then I read that in the world of Rap musicians there is a definite rule about the amount of bling you wear; it’s not ok to out-bling the the biggest and most successful Rappers, even if you could afford to, so we’re back to the power and status idea in evidence from the very beginning.
But now it’s not just about power and/or spare cash; a lot of modern men wear a single bracelet, or one earring, or a chain and pendant, all understated and, frankly, very manly! I discover too that there are jewellers who specialise in affordable – and really quite nice – men’s jewellery; pendants, chains, rings, earrings – the works. I never thought the Man Bag would catch on outside Italy but it has, so perhaps this is going to happen to Man Jewels. At Polly Gasston we’ve sold jewellery to men for themselves too, albeit only a few pieces, but it all starts with one, doesn’t it?
Pakal The Great…Jack Sparrow…Kanye West… they all had – and have – their reasons for adorning themselves, but then there have always been boy magpies, too.