Jewels Make the Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Foulkes

Earlier this month, news leaked that rapper Jay-Z was looking into launching a line of male jewelry. Of course, there is nothing new about pop musicians wearing jewelry, whether it's rapper bling, goth skulls, hippie beads, or heavy-metal chains. But changing from customer to jeweler is a big step, and Jay-Z is not the first musician to take it. Earlier this year British performer Pete Doherty announced that he would begin designing jewelry, inspired by everything from Moroccan silver to German pocket watches.

The man who let slip that Jay-Z is considering a jewelry collection was British jeweler Stephen Webster, who a decade ago designed his first collection of men's jewelry, Rayman, executed in silver and inspired by stingray skin. He had carried out individual commissions before, but this was the first time he'd conceived a pret-a-porter collection of men's rings, bracelets, pendants, and so on. Though the press loved it, he recalls, it was difficult to find places to sell it. "I had one shop, a small cupboard in Manchester Square in London, and other jewelers didn't have an area for it," he says.

Much has changed since then. "There is virtually no jeweler now that does not have a dedicated men's section," he says. The market makes up more than 20 percent of his business. Beginning next month, Saks Fifth Avenue will expand its male jewelry offerings, giving Webster six times more display space.

Of course this is not the first time that men have worn jewelry; at the court of King James I, style leader George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was known to turn up at court gatherings decked out in diamond earrings, cockades and hatbands, and huge pearl knots--he wore jewelry like prisoners wore fetters and manacles. The Puritans put an end to all that, but it would take more than Oliver Cromwell to keep men from garlanding themselves; chains, pins, and rings were still very much a part of the 19th-century man's attire, with dandies like Disraeli wearing rings over their white gloves.

In the 20th century, the Indian maharajahs kept the tradition alive, deluging Cartier with so many orders that the Paris jeweler set up an office in India. For the last few generations, however, male jewelry has been, if not taboo, then certainly of marginal interest, except among a few high-profile sports and music stars. Now the new century has given rise to mainstream interest in what many of its proselytizers have been careful to call "male adornment."

According to African silversmith Patrick Mavros, contemporary male jewelry is all about manliness and meaning. Mavros, whose men's bangles have won quite a following, bases his designs on the traditional "male adornment" of his native Zimbabwe. "It has to do with manhood, spiritualism, and bravery," he says. An accumulation of bangles at the wrist can form an important part of a man's life story. "In the history of each bangle he can identify a stage in his life when there was a success or defeat." This sense of narrative on the wrist was recently evident on Vanity Fair's best-dressed list, which featured a picture of French financier Arki Busson wearing a wristful of bracelets with his dinner jacket. …