Jewellery is one of the oldest forms of body adornment. In prehistoric times, shells, bone and stones were used to make pieces; during the medieval period it denoted wealth, status or rank; and in the Renaissance and Georgian periods, religious and spiritual elements were important, designed to protect the wearer. The 17th century saw gemstones and pearls soar in popularity, while diamonds sparkled through the Enlightenment, and flower-bedecked jewellery burst through in the early 19th century.
The Industrial Revolution saw a move away from machinery, precious metals and stones; to handcrafted pieces, metal alloys and imitation stones; and the early 1900s saw a notable shift as the flowing lines of the Art Nouveau movement influenced designers.
The early 1920s were characterised by the elegance of Art Deco; and despite, or perhaps because of the cycles of boom, depression and World War II, cheaper lines of fashion jewellery design started to rise in popularity. Coco Chanel pioneered these more democratic adornments and challenged the belief that jewels were only for the wealthy.
The bold, new 1960s saw the rise of new technologies and the use of non-precious materials, including plastics, paper, wood, textiles and leather. Paco Rabanne designed futuristic jewellery to complement his clothing, and Kenneth Jay Lane crafted fake jewels for Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis. The 1980s were dominated by mass-produced moulded plastic jewellery (think Madonna swathed in rubber bangles); and the 1990s by sleek, barely-there pieces.
The close of the 20th century would see a more experimental approach to fashion jewellery. A growing number of independent jewellery designers pushed the boundaries of their creativity and the expectations of their peers by rewriting the rules. They showcased skilled craftsmanship, an eclectic arsenal of technique and influences, unusual materials, and a fondness for limited-edition work. They also explored the interaction of jewellery with the body.
Alexis Bittar, who runs the eponymous jewellery company, and who has collaborated with Burberry, Michael Kors and Jeremy Scott, whittled blocks of acrylic down into chunky cuffs (check out his signature Lucite work) that entered new decorative territory; while in direct contrast, UK, post-punk stylist and designer, Judy Blame started making jewellery from found and recycled objects. He says, “We couldn’t afford a new outfit each time we went out so one night I made these necklaces. Buttons, string, safety pins, rubber bands, badges, feathers, champagne corks, paperclips, pill bottles, stamps; anything I could lay my hands on got incorporated”.
Vicki Beamon of NY designers Erickson Beamon agrees that modern jewellers aim to make something different to that that has gone before. She says, “There’s a new breed of designer fashion jewellery – its purpose is not to imitate but to innovate”.
Jewellery has developed into wearable art, and contemporary jewellery is fun and affordable. It is now possible for designers to be experimental and still commercial. “Our eclectic new century is a jewel-box brimming with more possibilities” fashion journalist and editor Hamish Bowles told American Vogue.
This new, more playful approach, has in turn had a huge impact on the fashion industry. It’s now standard that jewellery makers collaborate with fashion designers and the work appears in editorials and catwalk shows. Fashion jewellery has became a discipline in its own right; after years of “it” bags and shoes, designer fashion jewellery has captured our imaginations.
Jewellery is important because it is worn for many different reasons. It can be sentimental, a gesture of love, death, remembrance or ceremony. It is also a vehicle for us to display our personality, an expression of our identity. You can do so much with the right accessory, and by extension jewellery. Judy Blame says; “Accessories, and by extension jewellery, allow us to invent ourselves: they’re the icing on the cake. That’s why I always have been, and always will be drawn to them.”