The subject of men’s jewelry is one that draws a heavy divide between the wears and the wear-nots. While we may be accustomed to the sight of an intern sporting a festival wristband, few of us expect to see baubles adorning the arm of a company CEO. A man born of an earlier generation might scoff at the sight of a colleague sporting a stud earring, even as he adjusts the fastenings on his cufflinks.
Today, the overt display of luxury men's jewelry that doesn’t fall under the accepted labels of “wedding ring” or “tie pin” indicates a man who sits outside society’s norms – an attitude that is surprising when we consider that just a few centuries ago, it was taken to mean exactly the opposite.
Jewelry As a Status Symbol
Once upon a time, elite men wore jewelry as an outward display of their power and wealth. While the origins of this tradition can be difficult to trace, archaeologists have found shells, stone and even bones from prehistoric times with manmade holes that suggest they may have been fashioned into an early form of necklace. Not only were these ornaments assembled, but evidence has also been found of artificial coloring – indicating that they were as much admired for aesthetics as any possible practical purpose.
As society progressed, so too did the taste for trinkets. In Ancient Greece – popularly regarded as an era of great opulence – powerful men and Gods were often depicted with garlands and wreath crowns, and military men and public officials wore laurels as literal badges of honor.
Signet rings have served a similar purpose since their emergence in Ancient Egypt - typically worn as a sign of membership to a society or as a symbol of power within one. One of the earliest surviving examples, Tutankhamun’s signet ring, remains on display at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The ring typically featured the personal seal of a king or nobleman, which could be used to authorize letters and official documents. This marked perhaps the first example of luxury men's jewelry with a practical purpose – a theme in men’s jewelry that has persisted through the eras.
In 1860, Cecil B. Hartley said that men should let their jewelry “have some use” – a sentiment seemingly shared by jewelry designers even today. Many of today’s most popular luxury men's jewelry pieces have practical uses – from the obvious function of wristwatches to the tiepins first created to bring order to outlandish cravats.
Earlier generations found use for ornamentation even in war. Soldier’s uniforms were embellished and so were their swords – with so-called dress swords even making a brief appearance in 17th Century fashion. In many cultures, warriors also carry jewelry as a symbol of protection.
Women all across India and Nepal tie bracelets on their brothers’ arms in celebration of the festival of Rakhi. The practice originates in an ancient Hindu myth in which Indrani prepares a protective talisman for her husband, Lord Indra, before he enters battle.
Talismans and Amulets
The sentiment of Rakhi is one that has been shared by many cultures throughout history. Talismans and amulets have long been considered to possess magical properties that can protect their wearer.
During Medieval times, scorpion etchings could be commonly found on rings and other men’s jewelry pieces because of their perceived healing abilities. In an early example of anti-venom theory, scorpions were often used in medicine as a remedy for poison. Additionally, because of the animal’s association with the Zodiac water sign Scorpio, it was ascribed cooling effects.
Some jewelry was even thought to protect its wearer in the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt, scarab beetle amulets were placed over the heart of the deceased in order to ensure a favorable outcome when the god Anubis performed the weighing of the heart ritual.
Ancient Egyptians also treasured charms featuring the Eye of Horus – believed to provide protection against one of the many variations of the Evil Eye curse. In many West Asian cultures even today, Nazar amulets in the form of charm bracelets are passed between familial generations as a means of protection.
While today we may consider tweenage girls the chief purveyors of friendship bracelets, jewelry has been used by men to represent relationships since its first invention.
In pre-historic Africa, jewelry is thought to have featured in the earliest forms of trade. The widespread remnants of similar shell types suggest that business partnerships of the era were sealed with the exchange of these ornaments amongst hunter-gatherers from different societies. Even today it’s not uncommon for jewelry to be presented as a gift to respected business partners – exemplified by the traditional golden wristwatch given as a retirement present.
And, of course, we can’t talk about symbolic jewelry without also referencing the wedding ring. While the concept of wedding rings is thought to date back to Ancient Egypt, they were reserved for wives until very recently – evidenced by the fact that the Duke of Edinburgh does not wear a ring while the Queen of England does. The rise of male wedding rings in the UK is often attributed to World War II, during which time many men chose to wear them as a reminder of their families at home. Of course, many historians also consider the wider acceptance of luxury men's jewelry in mainstream fashion to be a contributing factor.
Jewelry As a Fashion Statement
However, decorative jewelry isn’t as new a concept in male fashion as many might believe. Since the improvement of trade in the Middle Ages brought new exotic jewels to the market, designers have competed to create the most eye-catching ornaments.
During the Celtic era, the materials used defined much of an item’s worth. Because gold was harder to come by as well as to work with, it was often reserved for nobility as a way to quite literally wear their wealth on their sleeve.
However, the Industrial Revolution meant that fine jewelry was suddenly more affordable for all classes, and so those materials quickly lost their shine. In an effort to outdo one another, the wealthiest in society turned away from the popular Greek and Roman styles of the times and instead sought inspiration from the Far East in imagining new, original designs.
The Modern Man's Jewelry Box
While inspirations may change, the desire to be different remains a running theme amongst men’s fashion designers. Today’s trends represent a mixture of influences from times gone by – from the practicality introduced by Ancient Egyptians, to the status symbols coveted by 17th Century soldiers, to exotic stones popularized by trade in the Middle Ages.
An elegant mix of all three is represented in these black onyx cufflinks by Jarosinski & Vaugoin, featured in Boulesse's luxury men's jewelry collection. In a nod to the Celtic obsession with premium materials, they’re framed in sterling silver crafted by Viennese silversmiths, while the contrasting black stone at the centre exudes the all-important air of masculinity that has been woven into male jewelry designs throughout the ages.
Talk of the history of jewelry is typically confined to women’s fashion trends – but glance a little deeper and unveil a veritable treasure trove (or should that be jewelry box) of men’s fashion.