Suddenly men who have scorned bracelets or rings are contributing to the increase in luxury accessories sales.
Until two years ago, Mike Alt, a software engineer in Boulder, Colorado, avoided jewellery for the same reason many men prefer to go unadorned: “Jewellery, especially on men, seemed flashy and gaudy,” he said.
“I never wore anything – not even my wedding ring, which cracked six months after we got married,” Alt said. “That was 25 years ago.”
Then Alt received two sentimental gifts from his wife – a palladium pendant in the shape of a lotus leaf, followed by a leather bracelet for his 50th birthday, both designed by Todd Reed, a jeweller who also happened to be a neighbor – and found himself reconsidering his view of men’s jewellery.
“Todd’s stuff captures every aspect of nature,” Alt said. “He presents it in a way that accentuates the material and not the person.”
Alt was so impressed with Reed’s style – the designer is known for his pioneering use of raw diamonds in industrial chic settings – that he asked him to make an anniversary cuff for his wife. When he stopped by Reed’s flagship store in Boulder, he found himself coveting a $1,500 leather bracelet.
“I put it on and fell in love with it,” he said. “It has a thicker leather band, about three-quarters of an inch wide. It has small diamonds set in it, just enough so you notice them at certain angles. I didn’t want to take it off. I can’t explain why.”
Unlike tattoos, piercings or fashionable clothing, jewellery still provokes deeply ambivalent feelings among men. Images of a casino pit boss draped in gold chains or a used car salesman flashing a ring still echo throughout pop culture, even though trends have clearly moved beyond such caricatures of masculine adornment.
“With the importance of the Internet, street-style photographers, bloggers, Hollywood style and the abundance of red-carpet reporting for men and women, we see men wearing jewellery, and it’s part of our modern psyche,” said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at the retailer Neiman Marcus. “So it would make sense that a trend that is so visual and visible in the industry would translate at retail.”
Translate it has: Sales of men’s accessories grew 9 percent to $13.6 billion in the 12 months ending May 2014, capping a two-year period that saw the category grow 13 percent over all, according to the market research company NPD Group. The fashion industry is capitalizing on men’s accessories with a frenzy of expansion. In July, the fashion publisher WWD reported that the designer Michael Kors had appointed a new global men’s wear president, charged with building a $1 billion men’s brand.
“Men, in general, have become more image-conscious,” said Maia Adams, co-founder of Adorn Insight, a market research firm in London focused on the jewellery trade. “It’s okay for them to follow fashion, groom themselves, look after their bodies, watch what they eat. Even the vogue for tattooing and piercing has become so mainstream that it’s unsurprising jewellery has become part of that self-expression box of tricks.”
The appetite for jewellery among millennial males is one oft-cited reason for the surge in interest in the men’s category. “It is well-noted that millennials have grown up in a more ‘accepting’ society, where things such as same-sex marriage and mixed-race relationships no longer turn heads,” Adams wrote in an email, “so it makes sense that men’s jewellery – once considered rather niche – is now increasingly mainstream.”
Research bears this out. Earlier this year, Noise/The Intelligence Group , a youth-focused marketing agency based in New York, released a report that found that, in a survey of 14- to 34-year-olds, 34 percent of men were willing to pay for a luxury accessory.
The agency’s chief marketing officer, Jamie Gutfreund, said the need to stand out in a demographic as large as Generation Y helped explain a penchant for rare and distinctive luxury items. “Millennials as a generation – there’s two billion of them around the world,” she said. “How will they differentiate themselves?”
There is nothing inherently new about men donning jewels to stand out in a crowd. From the gold chains that adorned ancient Sumerian rulers in Mesopotamia to the elaborate diamond necklaces beloved by India’s maharajas, jewellery was a man’s game from the very beginning – and the more powerful the man, the more sumptuous his ensemble.
“Where it probably splits, like everything else, is the French Revolution,” said Beatrice Behlen, senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, whose recent “Tomfoolery” exhibit featured photographs of male Londoners wearing jewellery.
After the rise of the bourgeoisie at the end of the 18th century, Behlen said, came “The Great Masculine Renunciation,” a phenomenon that saw men eschew bright colors and ornamental styles in favor of darker, more utilitarian clothing that underscored their commitment to work over beauty.
“Women are the fragile dolls, and men wear the clothes you can wear to walk around in the city,” Behlen said. “That doesn’t change again until the Second World War. The next time men are legitimately allowed to wear jewelry, apart from tie pins, is the hippie period – when it was fine to show your feminine side.”
Yet for all the “free love” of the 1960s and ’70s, men who wore jewels still found themselves on the fringe until the culture shifted again in the ’80s. “What is happening that is different?” asked Judith Price, president of the National Jewelry Institute in New York: “Sports and music.”
Price contends that jewellery for men became socially acceptable again some 25 years ago, when hip-hop stars and famous athletes began to sport heavy gold chains and diamond-encrusted accessories. For a more contemporary style icon, she referred to Prince Harry of Britain, whose taste for wearing stacks of beaded and leather bracelets on his wrist is well documented.
“Everyone wants to be Harry, they want to be a king, a royal,” Price said. “So they are emulating what sports stars, hip-hop rappers and royals wear.”
To hear Neiman Marcus’s Downing tell it, the 29-year-old Prince Harry’s predilection for surfer-style bracelets reflects a truism about men’sjewellery (today, at least): The wrist is a focal point, with the trend reaching across age and income brackets. “A gentleman in a meeting with a pinstriped suit – it’s not unusual to see beads and silver poking out beneath his cuff,” Downing said.
To people familiar with the market, it is difficult to say which came first: the tide of interest in men’s baubles, or the retail selection to support it.
“When I was a kid, a guy would not walk into a jeweler if not to buy something for a woman,” said Lawrence McCormick, vice president for marketing at William Henry, a maker of pocket knives and men’s luxury accessories based in McMinnville, Ore. “Every time we walked into a jeweller, we felt mostly uncomfortable. Everything around us – the cases, the décor – was designed for a female audience.”
A few years ago, Marie Helene Morrow, president of Grupo Reinhold, the parent company behind a dozen upscale jewellery stores in Puerto Rico, decided to change that. Last November, Morrow opened Kiyume – the word means male in Swahili – a 650-square-foot men’s boutique in Plaza Las Américas, Puerto Rico’s biggest luxury mall. The store caters to men with an assortment of jewels and personal style tokens – from cufflinks and watches to grilling tools hand-carved from elk antlers.
“I felt so sorry for the men,” Morrow said. “They’d come to Reinhold – we finally got a little seating area. Most of the time, they’d just read the paper. I felt men were really shortchanged. But I didn’t want to get into men’s suits and shirts. I wanted accessories. I wanted it to be a clubhouse, where men could play cards or dominoes.”
Thanks to the collective push behind men’s jewellery, Morrow and other retailers now have a wider selection of designers to work with. This fall, for example, Alex Soldier, a Russian master jeweller based in New York, is debuting his first fine jewellery collection for men. It includes Zodiac pendants fashioned from smoky quartz, textured gold cufflinks in the shape of snails, and a $25,000 one-of-a-kind signet ring in 18-karat white, yellow and rose gold, with a 1.27-carat cushion-cut diamond framed by 2.45 carats of rhodolite garnets.
Even jewellery newcomers have felt the inexorable pull to the men’s side. Todd Vladyka and Jim Hinz, the duo behind Editions De Re, a one-year-old line of men’s accessories based in Philadelphia, quit their careers in the medical and art book fields, respectively, to pursue their fascination with jewellery.
“We spent Friday nights getting pizza, drinking beer and sitting around drawing stuff,” Vladyka said. “Independently, we both took jewellery-making classes because we both love metal. We talked about it and talked about it and we said if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to make us crazy.”
Committed to making “jewellery for the guys who don’t wear jewellery,” as Vladyka said, they created a set of trapezoid-shaped cufflinks at the behest of their friend Kate Egan, co-owner of Egan Day, a local jewellery boutique.
“They showed up with 12 drawings and they were really good,” Egan said. “Straight, gay, every guy who comes into my store wants an Editions De Re belt buckle,” she said. “Men want special things as much as women do – that’s what I’ve noticed.”
At William Henry, the founder and chief designer, Matt Conable, introduced in July his first jewellery collection, a tribute to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” He rendered the series’ mythical universe in offbeat materials, such as fossilized mammoth ivory and Damascus steel.
“It’s the largest product investment we’ve ever made,” McCormick said of the 65-piece collection.
Reed, the designer from Colorado, is equally committed to the men’s category. In June, at the Couture show in Las Vegas, he unveiled his first full-blown men’s jewellery collection, including belt buckles, stitched leather bracelets and a black jade ring with black diamonds that he described as “the sexiest thing” he has ever made.
“We have an advertising budget for men, we have P.R.,” Reed said. “We were always making men’s, but it was always one-offs. It never got the energy from a business perspective.”
The strength of the men’s business was one of the chief reasons Reed chose Los Angeles for the location of his second flagship store, which opened this month on hipper-than-thou Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach. “For me, L.A. has always been a very men-centric city,” he said. “I wanted to focus on the celebrity sphere, custom work and the men’s side – and they all co-mingle.”
Even stalwarts of the women’s jewelry design scene are edging their way into the men’s arena. After years of hemming and hawing, the jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, based in London, introduced Alpha, her first men’s collection, in June. Priced from about 2,000-10,000 pounds, or $3,200 to $16,500, the line reflects the designer’s cheeky sensibility. It includes a “Ball and Chain” pendant in sterling silver and a “Caveman” ring in blackened yellow gold that resembles a miniaturized skull and teeth.
For all the hoopla over men’s jewellery, however, it seems that the Great Masculine Renunciation – when society deemed that a real man could no longer be bejeweled – has cast a long shadow across the ages. “I don’t like a guy who is too adorned,” Azagury-Partridge confessed. “My criteria is, Would this guy still be attractive to me if he was wearing this jewellery, or would he make me feel ill?”
Victoria Gomelsky is editor-in-chief of JCK, a New York City-based jewelry trade publication. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1978. She divides her time between NYC and Los Angeles.