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From time immemorial, jewelry has been used to validate and display a woman’s worth—usually as an adjunct to a man, either as a wife or a mistress, but also for its own sake. From Cleopatra sailing down the Nile adorned in antique bling to Elizabeth Taylor sporting the 33-carat flawless-diamond ring given to her by Richard Burton, jewelry has always spoken volumes, adding status and perceived value to its wearer.
We tend to think of jewelry design as the fiefdom of male artists and the purchase of investment-level trinkets as the turf of admiring or appreciative (or merely guilt-ridden) husbands and lovers.
Over the past two decades, however, there has been a shift in women’s fashion, away from styles dictated by (usually male) designers, toward a more intuitive but also intellectually oriented female approach. Think the Row, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, and Phoebe Philo, lately of Céline—clothing that is as much in tune with the way women want to feel as with how they want to look. And now, there is a sea change in how jewelry is created and sold.
For one thing, more and more women are buying jewelry—from inexpensive items to those ranging in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—for and by themselves, as an integral part of their identity rather than pure adornment. Kathleen Seward, who has worked in the Barneys fine jewelry department for 14 years, affirms that her biggest clients are women who come in and buy jewelry completely on their own.
She adds, however, that while male buyers are often most interested in carats and resale price, women “are willing to invest in something beautiful and different that expresses who they are.” Another shift is that more designers are women, creating pieces they themselves love to wear and even take talismanic comfort in.
Both the women who design and buy contemporary jewelry cherish the singular look and feel of a bracelet or a brooch more than its carat value. “I shocked everyone by using a leather cord,” says Linda Lee Johnson, who uses predominantly 22-karat gold, a high grade (950) of platinum, precious gems, and high-quality diamonds, including the small diamonds known as melee. Federica Rettore, who thinks of her jewelry as “small sculptures,” believes that most male jewelry designers don’t think enough about the need for jewelry to be comfortable as well as the daily ritual of wearing it, rather than saving it for special events.
There will always, of course, be a certain kind of woman who prefers high-wattage, iconic gems from the likes of Harry Winston or Buccellati to the creations of a Sharon Khazzam, Irene Neuwirth, or Monique Péan. But the reign of tennis bracelets and diamond studs has ceded to an alternative aesthetic, which features multicolored bracelets and earrings that call on semi-precious gems, like jasper and tanzanite, as well as the rogue placement of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, or the use of “unfancy” materials, such as steel, bronze, Oriental wood, and horn.
In the history of female jewelry designers, several names stand out, including those of Elsa Peretti and Angela Cummings, but the first and arguably most important—indeed, one of the most influential jewelry designers of the 20th century—was Suzanne Belperron.
Of her, no less a connoisseur than Karl Lagerfeld opined: “There was never any danger of overstatement.” Belperron’s style was organic and bold and, when looked at from today’s vantage point, breathtakingly modern. She lived and worked in Paris from the 1920s to the 1970s, drawing inspiration from nature—starfish, shells, leaves, and flowers—and from a range of cultures, such as Oriental paisleys, Mayan ornaments, and African tribal designs.
Her signature pieces included cuffs and stackable bracelets and two-stone color earrings, and she often worked in what she referred to as “virgin gold”— 22-karat gold with a uniquely raw texture. Belperron is less recognized than she should be in part because she never signed any of her work, noting that “my style is my signature.”
All the same, she was collected by fashion icons of her time, such as the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland, and continues to be collected today by Lagerfeld, Daphne Guinness, and Catherine Deneuve. In 2015, Verdura opened a Belperron salon, drawing on vintage and newly manufactured pieces from her archives.
Most of the female jewelry designers I talked with developed a love for jewelry at a young age. Gabriella Kiss, who works in a small studio in upstate New York, has something of a cult following (her work is carried at Ted Muehling) for pieces that range from $150 for a pair of small silver earrings to $10,000 for one-of-a-kind items.
She explains that she was always “making tiny things as a child.” She adds, “I still wander in the woods and collect bugs and specimens.” These days, Kiss uses lost-wax casting to create insects and snakes—she cunningly perches tiny gold ants on mabe pearl or Herkimer diamond earrings.
Aurélie Bidermann, on the other hand, was exposed to the beauty of jewelry at a very young age through her mother and grandmother’s collections of both custom and fine jewelry. Bidermann is another designer who likes to mix organic materials, such as fabrics and metals, with precious gems, as well as dipping feathers, leaves, and shells in gold.
Khazzam, who graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in jewelry design and then for eight years worked as the in-house designer at Asprey (which, in turn, sent her to train under André Chervin, a master French jeweler), started making pieces of jewelry in high school.
Although the majority of these designers have studied jewelry design, there are exceptions: Judy Geib, who creates some of the most original and whimsical pieces around and whose work goes for anywhere from $1,000 to $200,000 (she is carried at Barneys New York; Twist, in Seattle and Portland, Oregon; and Mouki Mou, in London), is wholly self-taught. “I fell into it,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I was buying an antique earring and wanted to change the top copper stone to opals. I ended up buying two giant opals I fell in love with, bought a plumber’s torch and a book on how to make jewelry, and made a pair of earrings.” That was in 1996, and Geib’s been going strong ever since, having recently designed a sterling-silver cuff mounted with a whale and a necklace spelling out a sentence from her favorite novel, Moby-Dick, to honor that seafaring saga.
Brooke Garber, who inherited her father’s jewelry business, Sidney Garber, in 2008, says that in the past five years, 95 percent of her customers have been women purchasing for themselves. She believes that because people lead less formal lives nowadays, women like herself “want jewels we can wear every day.” She thinks of Sidney Garber’s signature rolling bracelets as her “navy blazer.” Khazzam observes that for women, jewelry has become “an extension” of themselves and adds that “it’s the only thing that they’re devastated to lose, not because of its intrinsic value but because of an emotional attachment.”
The designers frequently mention wearability—jewelry being seen as less of an adornment and more as part of a woman’s basic wardrobe—and the use of sustainable materials. Péan’s fair-trade pieces, which range from $5,000 to $2 million, all demonstrate a subtle, sculptural viewpoint. And Johnson concurs that the provenance of stones and other materials has become an important aspect of the business, observing that contemporary women have “a greater awareness of sources, whether it be recycled gold or diamonds that are not ‘blood diamonds.’ ”
What’s clear is that jewelry, like the women who buy it, has come a long way, baby. It was once seen as a standard evening accessory for ladies with money (or who merely wanted to look like they had money), featuring the usual cast of precious stones and representing an (imposed) image out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with Marilyn Monroe covered in sparklers, breathily singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Those midcentury pieces had little to do with the wearer, while these days jewelry is seen as a more creative and frequently bespoke expression of a woman’s personality and inner life. The “this is just an amethyst” approach to value is a thing of the past, although some of the men who buy jewelry may never understand the new conception, where quartzes mingle happily with emeralds and a rough Paraíba tourmaline— a very rare and valuable stone—nestles next to a piece of rock crystal.
Part of the fun, of course, is precisely the anonymous cachet of this sort of jewelry, the stealth-luxe, you-know-it-when-you-see-it attitude. Oftentimes only the woman wearing a pair of Neuwirth’s tourmaline-and-opal drop earrings or a Khazzam “baby” necklace knows its real value. It’s like wearing a wool coat with a fur lining. And that’s exactly the way she wants it.
Women have now reshaped the context for and very meaning of jewelry, making it less of a red-carpet bit of frivolity and more of an ordinary event. The designers I interviewed admired a wide variety of jewelers, including established masters—David Webb, JAR, and James de Givenchy—and lesser-known creators—Wallace Chan, Lydia Courteille, and Aldo Cipullo.
What they all have in common is their own personal investment in their pieces and a perception that the women who are their customers are looking for something they can wear all the time as a keepsake or future heirloom. These jewelers are guided by their intuition rather than by the market—and by a vision of beauty that doesn’t preclude material comfort or the prosaic demands of everyday life.