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March 30, 2010

The Wrist Factor

Lance's yellow band may have started the trend, but the manly bracelet didn't stop there.

You wear a size nineteen," the man said, sizing up my wrist with a casual glance. I had no idea.

He then turned back to survey the Cartier sales floor with that placid, implacable gaze of jewelry salesmen everywhere. I just kept staring at my size 19 wrist, which was at that moment bound in a gleaming $4,500 white-gold Cartier Menotte handcuff-style bracelet. The thing itself was beautiful. But what was it doing on my super-manly hand?

Normally I don't do jewelry. I never even wear a watch. I love cuff links, but I tend to lose them. My wedding band is a slice of brushed gold—if the maker offered it in a flesh tone, I probably would have taken him up on it. I'm not against men's bracelets, just as I'm not against body piercing or foulard ascots or handlebar mustaches or people with a talking parrot on their shoulder. I just don't like them on me. (Okay, I could see trying a handlebar moustache if I knew where to buy the right type of wax.)

The Cartier guy noticed my puzzled expression. "Size nineteen is normal," he said in a patient, encouraging tone. And the Menotte was itself reassuring: solid, gleaming...masculine. It looked right. The handcuff unlocks with a special screwdriverlike key, so I wondered what would happen if you had to remove it for airport security. Mr. Cartier assured me this wasn't a common problem. He asked if I'd like to try on something a little lighter and unveiled a simple leather band with a gold clasp. Actually, I was thinking I needed to find whoever it was that gave me that ID bracelet as a bar mitzvah gift all those years ago and apologize: I'm sorry. I never wore it. I had no idea how fashion prescient you were.

How manly are bracelets these days? The winner of the World Series of Poker is awarded not a victor's belt or a Superbowl-style ring but a bracelet. True, professional poker players are not generally looked to as avatars of style. Still, it might be a sign of the general acceptance of male accessorizing. Men embraced the color pink—now they're even wearing velvet—so can the era of wrist adornment be far behind?

The road from tacky to cool for men's jewelry might have begun with Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong's iconic yellow band. Working with Nike, Armstrong introduced a bright yellow bracelet embossed with the motto Livestrong and sold them for one dollar each to raise money and awareness for his cancer foundation. The first year, 50 million Livestrongs were sold and production has since been ramped up.

Business is booming in the over-one-dollar category, too. Designers and department stores all report growing demand for men's jewelry, with sales about twice what they were last year. "There's definitely been an increase in men looking for their own jewelry," says Stanislas de Quercize, the former president and chief executive of Cartier, now in the same position at Van Cleef & Arpels. "In 2004 Cartier introduced a men's Santos Collection, which has done extremely well, especially the steel and gold bangle." Mind you, the last time I checked in on such trends, my 14-year-old friends were sporting the classic Nantucket rope that stayed on your wrist until time—or salt water—wore it away.

I asked De Quercize if there were a lot of men like me, a bit squeamish on the subject. "All men wear a bracelet on their wrist when they wear a watch," he pointed out quite sensibly.

British designer Stephen Webster, himself a wearer of multiple bracelets, recently expanded his men's line to offer a few diamond-studded pieces. "Many guys own more than one watch. To me it seems like a pretty easy step to go from that to getting a bracelet on the other wrist," Webster says. "Today there are pieces to attract very different types of people: The younger man, for example, may want a leather band; the fashion-forward man might go for something in chunky silver. There's even a bracelet out there for the regular guy who's uncomfortable with jewelry in general."

"It's not about fashion or trends," says designer David Yurman, who has more than 50 styles of bracelets in his 15-year-old men's line. "It is a matter of something looking and feeling right. I consider my men's bracelets to be amulets for the wrist."

The range of what's out there is amazing, from classic Hermès ID bracelets and John Hardy's bold silver cuff to Catherine M. Zadeh's handmade carved buffalo horn bangle, meant to evoke the woven elephant-hair bracelets elegant men wear in France. Always intrigued by that casually chic European thing, I asked Zadeh about her typical customer. "A skeptical man will never call me," she said. "I design for a confident, sophisticated person." But, she contends, even those nervous about donning a bracelet can be won over. She knows this because her ideal client is her husband. "He's my model. When I first showed him the bracelet, he was reluctant," she recalls. "Once he put it on, though, he never took it off. If I want him to take on a new thing, I just need to fly him to Saint Barths, ask him to try it on when he's tan, then tell him how good he looks."

If a simple act of accessorizing can earn me a trip to Saint Barths and my wife's adoration, then this lifelong jewelryphobe pronounces himself fully recovered.