More men are experimenting with jewellery than ever before. So, what’s driving the demand for genderless gems?

The rules when it comes to men’s jewellery largely depend on the man who’s wearing it. A friend of mine sports an antique, baroque-styled brooch wherever he goes, and he looks absolutely terrific. Another friend is obsessed with stacking diamond-decked pieces. He’ll unapologetically spark up an unbuttoned shirt with blinged-out pendants so gloriously decadent they would have turned heads in the court of Louis XIV. 

Not long ago, the jewellery worn by these two men might have been considered feminine. Emasculating, even—which couldn’t be further from the truth. Thankfully in recent years, as the definitions of men’s and women’s fashion become increasingly blurred, we’ve seen men’s buying habits move beyond the traditional confines of watches, wedding bands and cuff links—and here at Tatler, we say it’s about time.

Men have, of course, enhanced their wardrobes with pieces of silver and gold for centuries. The Egyptians were some of the first to handcraft wearable trinkets, and Renaissance portraits show aristocrats of both genders wearing jewellery to communicate their status and power. A quick Google search for images of Maharajas and Mughal emperors will have you wondering how they managed to move under the weight of their gilded garments. But it wasn’t until recently that modern-day men could embrace the idea of wearing jewellery with pride.

Incidentally, when asked who she’d most like to see wearing her designs, Boucheron’s creative director Claire Choisne instantly answers: “Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala”. She describes how, in 1928, the Maharaja visited Boucheron’s Place Vendôme boutique in Paris, accompanied by 40 servants and six boxes teeming with several thousand emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pearls and diamonds. Boucheron’s artisans were asked to create a 149-piece collection which, to this day, remains the largest order placed at Place Vendôme.

Suzanne Kalan, who launched her namesake fine jewellery brand in 1988, frequently designs pieces for her son and launched her first-ever men’s line, which includes black sapphire- and diamond-set dog tags, earlier this year. “I’ve seen a significant growth in men’s jewellery in Asia,” she says. “I think it’s been trending due to the music industry and the increased number of Chinese celebrities who are embracing hip-hop and rock-star style.”

As with so much else in the world of style, K-pop stars are in on the trend, with Lu Han, former member of Exo, revealing his new partnership with Boucheron in August, and megaband BTS named the latest ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, wearing the brand’s jewellery and clothing. Anson Lo, a member of Hong Kong’s answer to K-pop, Canto-pop band Mirror, has been photographed wearing Bulgari. “I’ve seen more and more men, particularly in Asia, rediscovering the joy of wearing diamond jewellery,” agrees Choisne.

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So what was it about lockdown that sparked our desire to binge on bangles and pendants? Perhaps unspent cocktail cash was burning a hole in our pockets. Yasuhiko Hashimoto, director and executive vice president of Japanese pearl jeweller Mikimoto, agrees with Kalan and Choisne that men’s jewellery does particularly well in Asia, but adds that it’s gaining traction everywhere. “People have turned to jewellery to compensate for the loss of travel. It’s become a way for them to treat themselves.” 

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a pandemic doesn’t bode well for business, but the jewellery industry has remained surprisingly resilient during Covid. Last year, during the peak lockdown months of March and April, online fashion retailer Moda Operandi saw fine jewellery sales skyrocket by 35 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. Mr Porter, the male counterpart to online store Net-a-Porter, initially sold entry price point pieces from luxury fashion houses including Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta. It’s since expanded the category and, at the time of writing, was selling a chunky chain bracelet by fine jewellery label Shay for more than US$50,000. Matches Fashion, meanwhile, increased its men’s jewellery range by more than 50 per cent for spring-summer 2021. 

But for Hashimoto, the plan is to steer clear of gender-specific language altogether. “We believe that spreading awareness that jewellery is a non-binary fashion item should be our biggest objective.” Mikimoto collaborated with Comme des Garçons earlier this year and, in keeping with the fashion label’s ungendered approach, the necklaces were designed for wearers “regardless of age or gender”.

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That’s easier said than done, argues Kalan. “There is still this inherent feeling that our tastes should reflect whether we are male or female and, because of this, designers are hesitant to push boundaries too much and end up with a collection that doesn’t sell,” she explains. As a result, established brands and retailers can fall into the trap of slapping the words “unisex” and “gender-neutral” onto shapeless designs. Sure enough, looking up the best genderless jewellery online will lead you to a selection of plain, play-it-safe pieces; but some jewellers are taking this untapped market seriously.

Valérie Messika, founder of the eponymous Parisian jewellery house, created a titanium version of her best-selling Move collection in 2016 with male customers in mind. At Bulgari, Lucia Silvestri, the company’s creative director, added to the Italian house’s B.Zero collection, a line that has proved popular among men and women since its debut in 1999. It’s the first Bulgari line to be officially described as unisex. Tiffany & Co, which invented the engagement ring as we know it when it created its six-prong signature setting in 1886, launched a men’s engagement band this year. Named after the house’s founder, the Charles Tiffany rings are available in different shades of platinum and titanium, and come set with diamonds that weigh up to five carats.

High jewellery designers are also seizing their opportunity and, in July, Choisne presented Histoire de Style, Art Déco, a collection of art deco-inspired jewels that defied genders. The Cravate Émeraude, for example, can be fastened around the neck like a tie or necklace, and its glittering 8.02-carat, emerald-cut Zambian emerald can be detached and worn as either a brooch or collar jewel. “I don’t like the idea of creating for one type of person. I don’t want to put people in boxes, no matter their gender, age, origins or nationality,” she says. “For me, it’s about character, personality and aspiration.”

Choisne refers to her newest high jewellery collection, Holographique, as an example. “For some of those pieces, I feel that they would look even stronger on men.” For the Chromatique brooch, freshly plucked peonies and pansies were scanned, then those scans moulded onto white ceramic and sprayed with micro particles of precious metals. “It’s very delicate but looks very strong on a man.”

While the concept of genderless gems isn’t new, attitudes towards gender are changing and it’s having an undeniable effect on jewellery design. The bottom line is: a white T-shirt and jeans are the perfect backdrop for a piece of jewellery—whether it’s high or fine, worn by a man or woman. So, as the world prepares to come out of lockdown, will we revert to our conservative ways or continue to push forward? Genderless jewellery has finally made its way into the mainstream; let’s hope it’s here to stay.

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