While recording a short interview for a film about Savile Row the other day I was asked what made me throw so much energy behind British bespoke tailoring? I believe the epiphany came at the Paris menswear shows when what I saw on show was not reflecting a bigger picture: the relentless drive towards individuality in dress, a rejection of global brands and a desire to reconnect with a slower, more considered and responsible approach to dress.
Savile Row met all those requirements. The suits had longevity, individuality and light carbon footprints. The process involved human skill, connection and a commitment of that most precious commodity time. One could ask the same question as to why I chose to write Jewellery for Gentlemen with Thames & Hudson at this precise moment in time.
Over recent decades I had seen man’s innate desire for adornment play itself out in Hip Hop bling and Rock ‘n Roll biker silver. Surely, I thought, taste would evolve and become more sophisticated. The epidemic of tattoos proved to me that men were not shy of inking permanent decoration on their flesh … a much bigger commitment than buying a precious piece of jewellery that can be removed.
Reaching back into history, I was fascinated to see how jewellery migrates around the male body. One only has to walk the halls of the National Portrait Gallery to see how tastes in men’s jewellery evolves. The Whitehall cartoon of King Henry VIII shows one of several parures (sets) of ruby and yellow gold jewels that the king wore on his fingers, in his caps and as buttons and dress studs.
King James I reset many of the jewels he inherited from Queen Elizabeth I to wear as vast hat embellishments including the lost ‘Three Brothers’ ruby, diamond and pearl plaque. King Charles I favoured a substantial single pearl earring as large as Mary Tudor’s Peregrina and jewelled shoe buckles. The three King Georges grew increasingly parsimonious in dress until King George VI profligately spent re-setting Crown and borrowed diamonds.
It isn’t widely known that the diamond diadem with a single yellow diamond accent seen on every stamp and banknote worn by Queen Elizabeth II was made for King George IV. It was a jewel for gentlemen. The British royal males never regained the louche splendour of King George IV as far as jewellery is concerned bar Coronation Day.
But well into the 20th century, India’s Maharajas were still commissioning suites of magnificent jewels from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron that constituted Indian Art Deco Crown Jewels. A case in point is the magnificent Patiala necklace set by Cartier in the 1920s: a platinum festoon set with diamonds, rubies and a the vast yellow De Beers diamond.
What fascinates me about the Indian Maharajas’ jewels is how masculine these adornments appear despite the fact that no woman in that era wore more bar Britain’s Queen Mary in her pomp. The last Maharaja of Patiala was photographed wearing the necklace in the early 1940s after which it disappeared presumably broken-up. Remembering this was less than a century ago, who can doubt that the desire for lavish jewels is not still latent in Indian culture.
Such is life that the young revere movie stars so much more than royalty today. I began to notice that important antique jewellery was appearing on men’s lapels on red carpets worldwide. Cartier led the field with a 1950s sapphire and diamond brooch worn as a collar pin by Jared Leto at the Met Gala and an 18ct yellow gold Juste un Clou nail pin worn in Alexander Skarsgard’s lapel.
The influencers are ahead of the industry in this respect although we are seeing the international jewel houses beginning to ramp up their collections marketed to men. Even ten years ago who would have thought a large solitaire diamond earring would have migrated to the high street thanks to the influence of Lewis Hamilton, David Beckham and Will Smith? I go to Waitrose now and so many of the boys are wearing single ear studs the size of a dice.
Questions about what constitutes masculine or feminine fashion is the hottest topic at present. I’m not even going to go there about John Lewis selling gender neutral children’s clothes. But what I will say is that this fluidity can only add fuel to the fire for Jewellery for Gentlemen. Men have worn significant precious jewels since the dawn of civilisation. Victorian modesty and austerity for men is merely a blip.
The global brands that have successfully conquered emerging markets worldwide did not, I think, take into account the patina of taste in fashion and jewellery that has evolved over hundreds of years. Who is to say that China will not return to the splendour of the age of its Emperors or that Russia will not yearn for the glories of the 300-year old Romanov dynasty?
I don’t think for a moment that we will see tech billionaires smothered in jewels like an Indian Maharaja. But it is already clear that the super rich in Hong Kong both male and female covet pieces of antique Imperial jade and that Russian oligarchs get a kick out of owning a set of the last Tsar’s jewelled Fabergé cufflinks.
In an era of virtual money (Bitcoin), contactless payments, instant debits and online banking there is something very reassuring about solid assets such as an antique Cartier pin or a coloured diamond set of cufflinks. Portable property was the saviour of the wealth of the Maharajas and the exiled Romanovs. So I will make a prediction. Men will increasingly trust precious metals and stones in this uncertain world. Perhaps in the 21st century diamonds will be a boy’s best friend.