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.