The gentleman is back as styles shift from gothic to refined.
As suits get sharper and heritage fashion labels hold sway, the jewellery market is benefiting from a knock-on effect that has led to men shopping for sophisticated precious jewellery. Kathryn Bishop on why surf and skulls are out and refinement is in.
In the basement of the famous Hix restaurant in London’s Soho in July, British jewellery brand Stephen Webster invited guests to an early morning fashion show for the unveiling of its new jewellery collection.
But this breakfast event was not your usual showcase of jewellery because, as the guests sipped gin Bloody Marys and ran their fingers over the new collection, their attention was halted as, strutting across the bar, appeared Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp and famous hairdresser Nicky Clarke, adorned with the brand’s new collection — a range of men’s jewellery — kitted out with the sharpest tailored suits and smart, lace-up shoes.
But what did this parade of men’s jewellery mean? It represents a shift in the direction of the men’s market, a more grown-up movement that puts the surf beads to one side as jewellery of smarter origins and even bespoke designs take centre stage.
Male jewellery trends, they are a-changin’
Mark Ungar, director of Thorn.co.uk, the leading UK website dedicated to branded men’s jewellery, says that recent market developments show that men are looking for a bit of refinement in their jewellery. Gone is the Russell Brand look of chunky finger rings and layered chains and rosaries, and in is a classic, gentlemanly style with delicate details and considered design.
“We find it used to be the leather, surf bead jewellery that men went for but now they want something different,” Ungar explains. “For example skulls — we’ve been there, done that. Men’s choices have calmed down a bit; it’s about being smart now.”
Steffans in Northampton boasts a strong online presence in the UK with its collections of branded jewellery that includes men’s ranges from Links of London, Thomas Sabo, Shaun Leane and emerging brands such as ChloBoy, the range from up-and-coming fashion brand ChloBo. Steffans founder and director Steff Suter says that the men’s market has shifted and that the grip of gothic men’s jewellery is weakening.
The emerging trend, it appears, is a desire for something a little more sophisticated, a shift that reflects the changes that have taken place in men’s fashion over the past 18 months. While a youthful, urban look is de rigueur among the teenage shoppers — most of whom are likely to be buying costume jewellery from high street fashion stores — men’s jewellery has been around long enough that its early customers have grown up. They are now influenced by the tailored, suited Mad Men look, teamed with an emerging trend for heavy tweed jackets, rolled up ankle-length chinos, polished leather shoes and smart bags. Overall, men are more confident experimenting with their fashion while opting for premium, well-made goods.
This appears to have filtered down into jewellery design and, as Ungar explains, consumers are following fashion’s move towards something a little more gentlemanly. Single, understated rings, perhaps a signet ring with a monogram or cufflinks that do the talking are becoming must-haves, even items such as unusual tie pins are becoming little objects of desire.
The signet ring is something William Cheshire, founder of the eponymous William Cheshire brand, would love to see revived. “I love a ring on the pinky finger, it has a very ‘I’m in a private club don’t you know’ look about it,” he says. “[But] if there were any styles I’d like to see the back of it would have to be the Aussie leather necklace, worn tight with a little shark tooth on, or a couple of beads, Richard Hammond style – they’re cool by the beach, but when the City boys wear them it looks a bit sad.”
Essentially detail and interest appear to be taking hold in men’s jewellery, a change that might be the result of reining in design as the industry and consumers continue to work through the recession.
British jeweller Lewis Williams, who works under the brand name Lewis Henry Nicholas, is a new designer on the scene and though based in New York, says the changes in demand for men’s jewellery reflects a desire for quality product with a story. He’s just been snapped up by Kabiri, a fashion-forward independent jeweller in London.
“Recently men have moved away from big hunks of scary-looking jewellery and adopted a more subtle approach,” he explains. “I think men today are genuinely interested in their jewellery having a story [like] Britishness and historic references.”
Williams adds that taking design elements from antiquity and interpreting them in new ways is always going to be part of men’s jewellery design.
In Hatton Garden, fine jeweller Nick Fitch, owner of Nicholas James, has been making bespoke jewellery for men for many years. Last year he caused a stir with a capsule high-end men’s collection called Savage Solitaires – solid gold rings with diamonds and precious stones that referenced the legend of Jack the Ripper.
Though Fitch’s work tends to be mostly focused on fine men’s jewellery such as wedding rings, he too has noticed the move into jewellery that represents a wider shift in men’s fashion and shopping habits. “The past two years leather friendship bracelets became the thing for guys, with little bits of silver here and there – nothing statement, quite casual,” explains Fitch. “But suddenly I am seeing guys, sharp dressed fellas in tailored suits, and the last thing you expect to see is a flash of gold bracelet peeking out from under their cuff, but that’s what they’re wearing under their shirts.”
Stephen Webster meanwhile says demand for his eponymous men’s jewellery collection has shifted. “In these difficult times people tend to look for something a little bit out of the ordinary and that extra bit special – [the] reason why our men’s jewellery sales are still strong,” he says.
Earlier this year Links of London unveiled a steel jewellery collection, made with the license of British Formula One race team McLaren. It was designed by Philippe Cogoli, a former Alfred Dunhill employee who has been head of design of watches and men’s jewellery and accessories at Links of London for four years. He says the market has grown and revealed two types of male shopper.
“Men’s jewellery is not so niche [now], its market has increased quite a lot the last few years, definitely for Links, our men’s market is growing dramatically,” he explains. “Now you have two types as such, those guys who want something very trendy and the guys who want something more understated, with that bit of something extra. They’re the ones who are ready to spend more money so want a bit more value in the piece, a different shape or some versatility.”
Pricing and product
But how have men’s jewellery brands adapted their collections to fit with this market and with it the pockets of the current male consumer? Conventionally the majority of men’s jewellery has never quite been able to command high prices, aside from bigger name brands, wedding jewellery or fine jewellery with gemstones, due in part to the accessory connotation of men’s jewellery. Further many male shoppers were – and still are – dipping their toes into the more upmarket jewellery realm.
At Gecko Jewellery, where men’s silver and steel collection Fred Bennett is designed and manufactured, price has always been a key driver of each collection, to maintain appeal for both retailers taking on the products and the eventual shopper.
Hannah Trickett, head of design at Fred Bennett, says the gifting element to men’s jewellery has meant designing with particular price points in mind.
“Price-wise, steel jewellery has become a bestseller over silver; because of its ability to allow you to design products that might become too expensive if made in silver,” she explains. “This has made steel very appealing, but anything that goes over the £300 mark we struggle to sell. That’s our top pricing limit.”
For Stephen Webster, a brand known for its high-end jewellery designs, the evolving price of the raw materials has meant the brand has had to adapt its collections; something Webster says has been a long-term, continuing challenge.
“We were never a brand who sold a lot of diamond men’s jewellery,” he reveals. “The price is always an issue for wide appeal and also the whole sparkly thing is too associated with women’s jewellery and just too pretentious for most guys.”
So does a more affordable price go hand-in-hand with a simpler design aesthetic? Possibly so, says Ungar, who notes that the shift to neat, more restricted styles of men’s jewellery has come as consumers tighten their belts.
“Because of the way the recession has affected people I think the spend [on men’s jewellery] is less compared to two and half years ago,” he explains. “When the going gets tough it’s the classic with a little twist pieces that sell.”
Cheshire agrees that male customers often hunt around for a good price, so he ensures that he aligns his prices with those of his retailers to retain fair competition. “Mind you, it can be two years before a customer comes back [because] men tend to buy one thing and really make it last,” he adds.
At Links of London the McLaren range has been made primarily in steel, with what it dubs “masculine” materials such as carbon fibre, Kevlar – the same material used in bullet-proof jackets – and black PVD used to give the steel some personality.
Designer Cogoli says that hitting key price points is always in his conscious when designing, as he has particular price targets to meet in his design briefs. “When designing the current collection we had several price points we had to work to so I knew what I had to achieve with the designs,” he reveals.
Nick Kovacs of IBB London, owner and manufacturer of men’s silver cufflinks and jewellery brand Hoxton London, says that its customer’s tastes have got a little more adventurous but that customers are still looking for classic designs with small points of interest. “Spinning rings, hinged bangles and patterned cufflinks are becoming bestsellers,” Kovacs explains. “We’ve found the men’s market is showing continual growth at a time when very few product areas are doing so.”
For Fitch, the majority of his men’s jewellery sales will be of a higher price due simply to the nature of his work. However he understands how the price of a piece of jewellery really can make or break a purchase. “Most men will spend £30 or so on a friendship bracelet [but] others will save thousands for something special. Right now they’re a minority, but a growing one.”
Fitch explains that men’s jewellery is now beyond the fad stage and that as the men’s watch and accessories market booms with more men opting for higher-priced, automatic watches or fine leather goods, the men’s jewellery market is beginning to follow.
Shopping from the sofa
While the high street has enabled fashion retailers to introduce men’s jewellery collections, some designers have found this has made attitudes towards men’s jewellery difficult to alter. Cheshire explains that it is sometimes difficult to get male customers through the door of a jewellery shop purely because it is retail space they will be largely unfamiliar with. “[Male shoppers] are more inclined to see jewellery in fashion stores, such as All Saints or Topman for example,” says Cheshire. “This is usually quick fashion items aimed at the younger market [but] the independents are getting in on the game, allowing more space in the stores and using the web to portray a more masculine image.”
The online arena appears to be the most important platform for driving men’s jewellery sales, however, as it allows them to sit back and browse products, compare prices and make purchases without having to enter a store — perhaps an ideal, comfortable middle ground for shoppers who might not yet be prepared to step over the threshold of a store to try on a necklace or ring.
Ungar’s customer base certainly supports this view. He has found that his international customers appear a lot more comfortable shopping online, and while UK sales are steady most UK shoppers will make entry-level trial purchases before shopping for more expensive goods. “We sell a lot online to America and Australia and have had a number of shoppers from Russia,” he explains. “The Americans are more than happy to shop online and so they will spend more, while the UK’s men’s market is more about trying out shopping online with a small purchase of around £150.”
Cheshire concurs: “I found the majority of my website orders are from men, so I’m inclined to suggest chaps prefer to shop around online rather than go for the impulse buy from a shop.”
At Thorn, marketing has been key and the use of search engine optimisation, Google Ad Words and pay per click initiatives ensures that the company remains top of search results through Google. “We make the most use of key words that are very simple search terms, plus particular designer names that we know will be popular searches as well,” explains Ungar.
Even online retail giants such as Asos are host to men’s jewellery, not only own-branded products but also fashion-led collections from Simon Carter, Vivienne Westwood and Armani. Of note, however, is the lack of men’s precious or silver jewellery, perhaps due to its target market. Conversely, high-end men’s fashion site Mr. Porter, brother site to luxury women’s retailer Net-a-Porter, does boast a capsule collection of men’s jewellery including 18ct gold and bloodstone signet rings.
The next men
As with any industry as time evolves new faces come through and, along with Lewis William’s collection of jewellery, several other designers have been tipped for the top by the industry.
Both Stephen Webster and William Cheshire namecheck Tomasz Donocik as their rising star of men’s jewellery and though he is not the newest player on the scene, his designs have certainly caused a stir, with Webster describing him as “a very dynamic guy” and Cheshire admiring his “good feel for men’s jewellery, style and wearability”.
Thorn’s Mark Ungar meanwhile is supporting emerging designer Lukasz Pasikowski, founder of Cardinal of London. Ungar spotted his work at Treasure at Jewellery Week in June and commends him for offering something a little different with his selection of hand-crafted animal head men’s jewellery and bangles and rings that appear hewn from rocks.
Nick Fitch has also reacted to the changing market and, designed to launch simultaneously with a new Nicholas James website in October, he will reveal a new carefully priced men’s jewellery collection designed in partnership with his long-term collaborative partner Harcourt, a leather specialist. The new range will be priced upwards of £195 and will include items that can be traditionally monogrammed or set with birthstones.
Certainly it appears that the men’s jewellery market has moved on, or at least in a new direction as men begin to appreciate design and want more from their jewels. While there are still plenty of entry-level options such as the ranges from Fred Bennett and Hoxton London, the rise in men looking for items unique to them that have a classic, gentlemanly aesthetic shows a return to safe, quality goods that will might command a premium price but will ultimately last.
This article was taken from the August 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.