How androgyny is shaping modern jewellery design.
Jewellery design is not always about creating a sapphire necklace for a lady and a black leather bracelet for a man, sometimes it can be designing a jewel and letting the public decide who should wear it. Rachael Taylor explores culture’s enduring obsessions with androgyny and how it shaping modern jewellery design.
The portrayal of sexuality has long been a point of definition, of discussion, of ambiguity. While the conversation and its issues are perpetual, right now gender bending is in vogue.
If you are in any doubt about this statement, look to the catwalks of AW13. On them you will find Casey Legler, the 35-year-old ex-Olympic swimmer, who is the first woman signed to work exclusively as a menswear model, working the runway for the likes of Michael Bastian. Simultaneously Jean-Paul Gaultier booked Bosnian-Australian male model Andrej Pejic to model for both its men’s and women’s AW13 shows.
The choice of such models is a strong statement from the fashion business about the importance of genitalia in gender portrayal, but such moves are led by the looks of the moment rather than being a stance on stereotyping.
Androgyny and minimalism are very much defining forces in fashion right now, with sharp tailoring for both sexes, ambiguous luxe basics and obvious gender-flipping quirks, some as simple as brogues on women and others a little more risque like JW Anderson sending obviously masculine men down the runway at its AW13 show wearing thigh-high dresses and knee-length boots.
While this gender power play is taking place within the upper echelons of haute couture, this androgynous trend is influencing jewellery design, albeit in a less provocative way. Turning a blind eye to gender in design is not always about creating thought-provoking designs that offer up a sensual confusion; sometimes it can be as simple as a universal design that suits both sexes and, as such, shirks definition.
Friendship bracelets are one such product; as popular with young men as they are with their female friends, it is a jewellery trend that has crossed boundaries. Youth’s love affair with these brightly coloured woven accessories started on the festival scene a few years back and continued to blossom as the sun set on summer, albeit with dark leathers replacing neon threads.
Once this taboo was broken and wrists seemed fair game, the crystal bead bracelet phenomenon exploded onto the scene, entrancing men and women alike, and succeeded in creating a second wristwear trend that spoke to both sexes equally.
Who buys unisex?
Both these trends have found their zenith with the younger generation – those in their teens and early 20s – but Chloe Moss, founder of jewellery brand ChloBo, which has found a unisex customer base for its festival-style bracelets and silver charms, says open-minded older jewellery shoppers can also be a key target.
"These [androgynous] trends are becoming more relevant and influencing purchasing behaviour," says Moss. "Many ChloBo product designs have androgynous appeal and we have on occasions specifically designed androgynous pieces, a good example being our bracelets designed for the summer festival season. There appears to be a bias towards younger customers, although we do have older customers. The profile of the younger shopper is typically someone who is fashion conscious and into the music scene. The older profile is men and women who were in their teens in the late 1960s, early 1970s, when unisex dressing was also at a high."
At Tateossian, founder Robert Tateossian believes that it is strength of personality that creates a unisex shopper. It has enjoyed admiration from both men and women for its leather bracelet line and now it says that the male shopper is maturing, leading the brand to add details such as black diamonds to the range.
Black diamonds were also important to the development of Vanessa Tugendhaft’s ranges. She describes herself as "more of an androgynous woman than very feminine" and when she came up with the concept nine years ago of stringing a diamond on a piece of thread she instantly thought about men and so used a square black diamond for her creations.
Since then the Belgian jeweller has been designing exclusively for women, but this year she has launched her first collection of unisex jewellery. The range features leather bracelets with diamond details, and like many other unisex lines it limits itself to the wrist.
Tateossian goes so far as to define unisex jewellery as "anything that is worn around the neck or wrist, versus the ear" but there are some designers taking the concept of androgyny to the lobes, fingers and beyond.
Beyond the wrist
London jewellery house Hannah Martin London has been ahead of the androgyny curve, and has been exploring this theme since 2005. The brand presents itself as a men’s fine jewellery brand but the majority of its customers are women, who love the slick, androgynous designs and edgy brand ethic.
The rebellious nature of blurring the lines is translated through blackened gold, stones set upside down and razor-sharp edges. And to further solidify its androgynous stance, the brand’s web store is cheekily split into men and women but the jewels on offer are exactly the same.
Hannah Martin London has carved the way for other jewellers with its tagline – Iconic fine jewellery for men, that girlfriends will steal – to explore the concept of sexual ambiguity in jewellery that goes beyond a cheap friendship bracelet.
Rachel Boston is a young designer based in East London who has set up her own brand after interning with Shaun Leane, another design house creating jewels with unisex appeal, such as its Signature Tusk, Serpent and Horn collections that appeal to both men and women. Like Hannah Martin London, Boston’s designs have an androgynous core.
"My work is largely inspired by nature, it’s a universal theme so it appeals to either gender," says Boston. "People could argue that beetles and scorpions are probably more masculine figures but I’ve refined them in a way that appeals to women also. I’ve always preferred a more ambiguous style so I wanted my jewellery to reflect that and combine the best of typically masculine and feminine jewellery characteristics. The pieces are delicate enough to appeal to women but not so much so that this would scare off men."
While Boston tries to take an open-minded approach to who would wear her jewellery she says that she does tend to design with either men or women in mind, however she is often proved wrong. For example, she orignally only made her medium-sized Stag ring, cast from the head of a stag beetle, in sizes for women but it has in fact found more success with male shoppers.
"When I first launched the collection I thought it was only the pendant necklaces that were really unisex but as a result of not labelling by gender it’s been great because men have bought rings and bracelets that I wouldn’t have expected," she says. "It’s given me a much broader view of what unisex jewellery can actually be and I’ve been able to use that information whilst designing my new collection at the moment to not limit my ideas because of preconceptions of what is gender-specific jewellery."
When it comes to marketing androgynous jewellery it can be a tough sell. Do you pitch to women and hope men are brave enough to get on board, or vice versa? Do you pitch to everyone at the same time and risk alienating both sexes by presenting a product that is neither one nor the other?
"Clean, simple and iconic images that are gender neutral are always best when appealing to both males and females," answers Tateossian, but of course Hannah Martin London is doing a sterling job doing just the opposite, targeting itself to men but cheekily luring in women as a result. Boston describes Hannah Martin London’s approach as "very clever because she’s appealing to men and women at the same time and making it a great selling point", however for her own brand she has gone to some lengths to strip sexuality from the equation.
"I’ve tried to stay away from mentioning gender quite specifically to keep it open," says Boston. "On my online shop I haven’t included models wearing the jewellery so that people wouldn’t decide that something is specifically for either men or women. In my look book I have a boy and girl wearing the pieces just so people can see the jewellery can work on both."
Back on the catwalks, creating androgynous looks is not all about confusing watchers with gender defying models, it can simply be about being on trend in a sophisticated way. When Spice Girl turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham set the agenda for the AW13 lines for her Victoria Beckham brand she created a style note about their typical shopper that read: "She is no longer overtly feminine but has a new androgynous feel. She’s put together yet stripped back."
To complement the boy-meets-girl masculine tailoring elements and sequins hidden under laser-cut overlays, the brand asked London brand Hillier for some jewels. What it got were gold signet rings with a blue disc etched with a diamond design that tap into a truly unisex jewellery trend that has been captivating designers of late.
Signet rings are not an androgynous jewellery trend breaking new ground, but rather one raking back over paths as well trodden as the discussion around gender itself. And with the catwalks awash with boys who look like girls and girls who look like boys, plus a braver sect of men happy to embrace jewellery, it is a discussion that is set to continue.
This Trends feature was taken from the April issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.