Apologies for the radio silence, I’ve also been preoccupied by the prep work for my new Thames & Hudson book Sartorial Treasures: Jewellery for Men. Without wishing to sound like Susie Orbach, a man does have to ‘commit’ to wear a piece of jewellery … especially if it is gem-set. I have a golden rule about men and jewellery. Without sentimentality or a story, chaps are not inclined to make the effort.
I recall inheriting the contents of my grandmother’s jewellery box and converting two pairs of earrings into cufflinks for my father and I. My set were a yellow gold three-dimensional rose with a pearl at the centre. They demand attention and, once won, the story is told thus I can bring my grandmother back to life.
Some of the more severe men’s style commentators will tell you that anything more than a signet ring breaks the rules of restraint and elegance. Killjoys! These jewellery deniers are the same ventriloquists dummies who churn out old chestnuts like ‘real men DO wear pink’: a declaration that always makes me want to sneak-up behind the speaker with a pillow and smother him. What, precisely, is a real man anyway? Answers on a postcard.
Selling jewellery to men has an awful lot to do with language. When, for example, does a brooch become a lapel pin? The answer of course is when a man puts it on a piece of tailoring. With the best will in the world, we aren’t going to go back to the 1920s and 30s when the Indian Maharajas would wear ropes of pearls, diamond festoon necklaces and aigrette-trimmed turban ornaments and still conspire to look masculine. More’s the pity. But a little more ostentation wouldn’t go amiss.
I’d like the book to reclaim pieces of antique jewellery that are now considered obsolete such as the stick pin. Stick pins were made to secure cravats rather than ties and tend to be too large in scale and elaborate for contemporary men. But wear them as a lapel pin with a tuxedo, velvet smoking or cocktail suit and these miniature masterpieces become sparkling talking points.
A couple of years ago, I was given a facsimile book of watercolour sketches and notes made by the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, cataloguing his collection of cufflinks and stick pins. It was a tradition amongst the inter-married royal families of Europe to commemorate state visits, birthdays, coronations and deaths with specially designed cufflinks made by Fabergé, Bolin, Cartier and Chaumet.
Rather poignantly, the Tsar’s hand-painted album survived the Russian Revolution but the pieces themselves vanished. Nicholas II must have loved the contents of his jewellery box very much to catalogue it so meticulously. Of course he had hundreds of royal cousins each of whom could have ordered him a set of links so the book was possibly a necessity as well as an indulgence.
I don’t have quite the vast collection of jewels to merit a watercolour journal but I do know that every piece in my walnut jewellery box is directly linked to someone I love: the diamond and ruby signet ring I always wear that was designed as three-rings-in-one by Grandmother Sherwood, the rose gold watch chain that belonged to my grandfather, the 1850 yellow gold fob watch my father gave me on my 21st birthday and various sets of cufflinks commemorating book launches and birthdays.
There is barely a day when I don’t wear links, my watch chain in my top pocket and my grandmother’s ring. I’ve also taken to wearing an ivory lion lapel pin that was a very special gift from Mr Bowering. In my druthers, I would wish for a collection of late Victorian/early Edwardian insect brooches to wear with cocktail suits. As my grandmother used to say, ‘if wishes were kisses’.
The Romanovs have loomed large for me this month. I was interviewed for a television series about various royal mysteries that included an episode about the 1918 murder of the Romanovs in the ‘House of Special Purpose’ in the Urals. We filmed at No 4 Princelet Street in Spitalfields: a house barely touched since the late 19th century and not dissimilar to the basement where the Russian royal family were executed.
The most horrifying aspect of the Russian royal murders was the fate of the four Grand Duchesses. Collets of diamonds and ropes of pearls had been sewn into their corsets in the event of a rescue attempt by the white Russians and the assassins’ bullets ricocheted off the stones. The Grand Duchesses survived the shooting but were bayonetted to death; their bodies stripped and the jewels stolen.
I have been fortunate enough to see various jewels belonging to the Russian royal family at antique jeweller Wartski including a diamond and aquamarine brooch given to the Tsarina as a wedding gift from the Tsar. The jewel was still in the Empress Alexandra’s possession when she arrived at the House of Special Purpose.
When a jewel tells a story of such tragedy and historic importance its value skyrockets. But when a jewel has sentimental family value, it is priceless. I never understand the avaricious skeletons on Antiques Roadshow and Flog It who come to the table with jewels belonging to mothers, grandmothers and beyond. Unless you really hated your relative, selling their jewellery is unforgivable.
When you’ve lived with something next to your skin or on your person for many years it does become a part of you. You can’t really pass anything on that is more personal. There is a reason that jewellery was looked on as sacred in holier times. To sell it is beyond sad unless poverty hardens one’s heart. As far as I’m concerned, when my grandmother’s ring goes I go.