We invited The London Cut author and style writer James Sherwood to survey the current crop of men’s jewellers elevating our expectations of design.
Witty, well-made, fine men’s jewellery has become something of an endangered species of late – eclipsed no doubt by the supersized status wristwatch as heavy as a manacle and as loud as a dinner gong. A watch might advertise status, wealth and brand, but in the language of jewellery it is relatively monosyllabic and positively tongue-tied compared to an intricate, fascinating jewel commissioned for, or by, a discerning gentleman.
A decent dress ring, cufflink or shirt stud was harder to spot on the Academy Awards red carpet this year than nominees who don’t owe their careers to Harvey Weinstein. The sole exception was ‘Les Misérables’ star Eddie Redmayne. He rocked it out in a bespoke Alexander McQueen dinner jacket and velvet slippers, gold barbed wire cufflinks (first seen at this year’s McQueen show at London Collections: Men) and gold ‘monkey’s fist’ knot dress studs.
Redmayne’s lethal links and the skull embroidery on his slippers electrified traditional formal dress like a shot of tequila in a smooth black coffee. The barbed wire motif did what good men’s jewellery is supposed to do: arrest the eye, invite curiosity, amuse and delight. There was nothing obnoxious about the young actor’s ensemble. He didn’t pile on the hardware like a Hindu god, rapper or rock star, and nothing was vulgar or over the top. But that small gold declaration of independence on his shirt cuff singled Redmayne out as a modern dandy.
Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis owns a model of Theo Fennell’s 18k gold Heroes and Villains three-dimensional portrait ring of Abraham Lincoln. The eponymous President won Day-Lewis his third Academy Award. Fennell’s collection of portrait rings – including Mao, Churchill, Shakespeare and the surprising best-seller Ghandi – are fine examples of jewellery that speaks to, and of, its owner.
Fennell’s imagination takes jewellery into a realm of fantasy that none but the brave would follow. A romantic and a rogue, he is the perfect court jeweller for a new generation of men commissioning dress jewellery. ‘The wine and fine art businesses have done a very good job in educating men and making them connoisseurs and collectors. Bespoke jewellery is the next logical step’, says Fennell. Though it is one of his least elaborate pieces, I am a great admirer of Fennell’s 18k gold Frog on a Lily Pad cufflinks. The connotation of kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince is vintage Theo Fennell.
Polish-born, London-based jeweller Tomasz Donocik has a dark, romantic sensibility for men’s jewellery. Like the designer, men who patronise Donocik aren’t limited by what might be considered appropriate for a man or a woman. His rose gold Venus Fly Trap ring, set with tsavorites and black diamonds, has sufficient menacing beauty to appeal to a man, as does his rose gold Crocodile ring set with emeralds and carved ruby eyes.
Quoting Oscar Wilde, he says: ‘Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For those there is hope.’ One of his most exquisite bespoke commissions for a male client is an intricate pair of Red Grouse cufflinks sculpted in 18k white and rose gold. These jewelled birds are works of art to hang on the blank canvas of a cuff. The cufflink is always partially hidden by a gentleman’s jacket, a secret between wearer and jeweller. ‘It seems that society has not branded that form of jewellery provocative or outrageous, so men are less limited by what others may think,’ says Donocik.
'Men like to wear a significant piece of jewellery’, says Solange Azagury-Partridge, whose male following has inspired her to begin working on a separate men’s collection. ‘When I design jewellery, I design what I would really like to wear’, she says, ‘so when I design for men I imagine what I’d like to see a guy wearing’. Her Heart of Gold pendants, Bone rings and Zodiac collection are all pieces that speak to her male customers.
Azagury-Partridge’s work has humour, beauty and a dash of the surreal that appeals to characters as strong as hers. Her Triple Gatekeeper ring – an open ring moulding three writhing 18k yellow gold serpents around the finger with a ruby and emeralds for eyes – is a powerful piece that will take on added resonance in the Chinese Year of the Snake. Azagury-Partridge says that designing men’s jewellery isn’t a departure from her creative process, though she admits, ‘men are as much a mystery to me as women are to men’.
‘We try to make things that become part of people and their story’, says Sheila Teague who, with partner Gary Wright, forms the creative team behind artist jeweller Wright & Teague. ‘Men are drawn to our work because it’s strong. We’re not particularly dainty or self-consciously feminine.’ Textured, sculpted gold work may be accented with stones or materials such as red silk thread, but the precious metal takes precedence.
The men who wear Wright & Teague appreciate the simplicity and power of pieces such as the 18k gold Mystic bracelet. Strung with articulated gold coffee beans; it clicks satisfyingly like worry beads. ‘Men like to know how things are made’, says Wright, ‘and gold in particular fascinates them: its weight, its provenance and, of course, its value.’ ‘We like to make jewellery relevant to now’, says Teague, ‘using old techniques to say something new.’ The fact that Wright & Teague’s jewellery actually has something to say puts them firmly in the camp of the great artist jewellers with a talent to amuse.