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In a Time of Stress, Jewellery Becomes Armour

By Rachel Garrahan

Hannah Martin at her jewellery design studio in London.
Andrew Testa
Hannah Martin at her jewellery design studio in London.

Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, Pamela Love has received more requests for pieces from her Dagger jewellery collection than any time since its introduction almost a decade ago. And Love, a New York designer, has no doubts about why her retailers and social media followers have renewed interest in the fierce-looking, but harmless, miniature daggers dangling from earrings and necklaces.

“Women want to feel tough,” she said. “They want something that reminds them they are tough, and they want something that shows the world they are tough. It’s not about violence. It’s about feeling strong and protected.”

Jewellery, that peculiarly intimate accessory, has long been associated with protection, whether spiritual, emotional or physical. “Clothing can be a form of armour as well, but jewellery is more personal,” said Hannah Martin, a designer in London. “You wear it next to your skin, and it imbues more of that strength than, say, a tailored jacket.”

Marion Fasel, a New York jewellery historian and founder of the online magazine The Adventurine, agreed: “It’s a history that stretches back to the dawn of time and across cultures, from prayer beads and amulets on.”

During a period when many think advancements in equal rights and civil rights are under threat, designers and experts say it is not surprising that women are turning to jewellery for a sense of safety and for self-expression. “Women are reacting to the current sense of threat in practical ways, whether it be in protest at the Women’s March or in using design and crafts as a way of expressing it,” said Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian with the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Andrew TestaThe designer Hannah Martin’s Possession ring, in yellow and rose gold with cognac diamonds.
The designer Hannah Martin’s Possession ring, in yellow and rose gold with cognac diamonds.

Armour rings have been part of Lynn Ban’s collection since she started it in 2011. Ban, a Singapore native who works in New York, said she was inspired to go one step further when she was commissioned to create jewellery for Rihanna to wear in photographs for W magazine last September. Told to imagine the pop star as the last woman in a post-apocalyptic world, Ban created a claw armour ring, an articulated design that stretches up the finger and ends in a clawlike pointed tip. “It continues the theme of my signature armour ring but is even more protective,” she said. “It’s like a weapon.”

It is no coincidence, she added, that the design, S$3,877 to S$4,846 at Dover Street Market in New York, was created during a time of political flux. “Revolution and social protest have always sparked intense periods of creativity,” Ban said. “Just look at the 1960s.”

For some, making a stand and expressing a political opinion may be as simple as wearing a feminist slogan T-shirt, such as those created by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior’s spring 2017 collection and any number of fast-fashion brands. Considering the price of fine jewellery, buying a gold ring with an overtly political message is a more costly proposition.

Two days after Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the final televised debate of the presidential campaign, Wendy Brandes introduced her Nasty necklace, which spells the word in either silver (S$415) or gold (S$1315). Since some customers wore the design to the polls and to the Women’s March in January, the New York designer said, the necklace has become her second-best-selling piece, with part of the proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.

Brandes said her customers do not perceive her designs (which also include signet rings depicting a raised first and the Venus symbol) as one-season pieces. “They tell me they’ll pass them down to their daughters,” she said. “People are now realising that the fight for women’s rights and democracy doesn’t end.”

Andrew TestaHannah Martin’s Possession cuff, in yellow and rose gold with cognac diamonds.
Hannah Martin’s Possession cuff, in yellow and rose gold with cognac diamonds.

For Arnold, the fashion historian, such overt messages are a necessary precursor in any movement toward a more subtle, longer-lasting aesthetic sensibility. “Initially you need the very obvious statement tees or jewellery, but underneath a more subtle idea of strength develops,” she said.

She added that the bold, minimalist jewellery offered by the French brand Céline, the Los Angeles designer Sophie Buhai and others reflect this deeper trend, harking back to the midcentury period when enormous societal changes for women were taking place. “It was a time of very strong women designers and a very strong visual aesthetic in clothing and jewellery,” Arnold said. Those midcentury designers included Vivianna Torun of Georg Jensen and Elsa Peretti at Tiffany.

“Peretti once said, ‘I design for the working girl,'” said Fasel, the jewellery historian, adding that it was no surprise that “she created the Bone Cuff, a bold and accessibly priced piece of jewellery for the pants-wearing woman.”

The bold form of a statement piece has been replacing the recent trend for layering multiple delicate jewels. “Wearing 10 Cartier Love bracelets speaks to me of insecurity and thinking your body should be loved, and needing to show that you are loved,” Arnold said. “Wearing one statement piece seems more confident.”

Selecting jewellery as a means of self-expression (rather than for just the sparkle or an impressive carat weight) is linked to the fact that more women are buying jewellery for themselves than ever before, taking gems out of the realm of being a mere prettifying accessory or a diamond-bedecked gift bestowed on a woman.

“With women buying for themselves, it means jewellery needs to be marketed at women specifically,” Martin said. “The really overtly feminist designs will die down after a while, but I think the sentiment will remain.”