All too often men’s jewellery takes a back seat in favour of women’s jewellery, for many reasons. By nature as well as society, women are more likely to be interested in fashion, aesthetic effects, and beauty than men – or at least, they express their interest in it more frequently by wearing or buying pieces and following trends. From engagement rings and piercings to everyday wear like earrings or necklaces, much contemporary jewellery is aimed at women rather than men, with men’s jewellery items being reserved for special occasions such as cufflinks or tie pins for weddings, formal events and the like. That doesn’t mean that men are incapable of designing, wearing, or liking jewellery. In fact, men’s jewellery has changed and grown just as much as women’s jewellery over the ages, and it doesn’t take much to discover a whole world of style in men’s jewellery. Here is just a sneak peak men’s jewellery through the ages.
Although there is no definite proof for obvious reasons, many researchers have suggested that the practice of wearing jewellery began with people adorning their bodies with the products of nature – namely, flowers, leaves, branches, animal bones, and stones. In North Africa, prehistoric shells have been found with obviously man made perforations through the centre, and it is estimated that they could date from as far back as 82,000 years ago. Another especially well known example is the ancient Greeks, who wore wreaths around their heads or garlands on their shoulders. The leaves or flowers used represented different Gods – oak for Zeus, laurels for Apollo, grapevines for Doinysos, and so on. Laurels were usually worn by the military and public officials during ceremonies and parades, while olive leaves were used for consuls and senators. Already, adorning yourself in such a way was seen as an expression of wealth and power. Even in the Bible, a crown of thorns is placed on Jesus’ head in the events leading up to his crucifixion as a way of mocking his claim of authority, and as a further cause of pain and embarrassment.
With the discovery of metal and the advancing techniques of the ancient societies who lived all around the world, the next natural step for body decoration was making jewellery out of gold, silver, bronze, copper, iron, or whatever other metals and alloys they dared to create. In Ireland, which was ruled by the Celts for thousands of years during the Bronze and Iron Ages, there are innumerable examples of this early jewellery, as adornment and beauty was vitally important for them. The Celts were master craftsmen, creating exquisite and intricate pieces that now make up the focal points of many a museum across Ireland, the UK and parts of mainland Europe. The more elaborate the piece, the more powerful the person. At this time, there was little difference between the jewellery worn by men and women, however, the metal used said a lot about your social standing. Gold and silver, being less common, more brilliant, and more difficult to craft, was generally reserved for the most noble and wealthy chieftains, while lesser members of Celtic society settled for bronze, copper and iron.
Celtic jewellery was very distinct and unique and includes pieces far removed from anything we wear today. The most common item was probably a torc, a neck ring that was unclosed, forming an almost complete circle; the open section was worn at the front of the neck. Another common adornment was the lunula, another item worn around the neck but much bigger than a torc. It formed a crescent shape, with the narrow ends sitting at the back of the neck. The Celts were also fond of brooches, again much larger than the kind we’re familiar with these days, which they used to fasten their cloaks at the front shoulder.
Middle Age jewellery
During the middle ages, some differentiation emerged between men and women’s jewellery. In an increasingly hierarchical society, men were seen as superior to women and exclusively held positions of power (the only exception being royalty, where family ties occasionally won out over gender). Crowns, septres, special brooches, and other items were used to define particular roles in societies and countries, and the more jewellery a single person could wear, the better. For men, rings were particularly important as they were a way of identifying your allegiances. They often came emblazoned with the symbol or crest of a particular family, used for sealing envelopes or for proud display during social occasions so everyone knew where everyone else’s loyalties laid.
The middle ages was when jewellery became more stylised. Gems and coloured stones were used for the first time, and design and fashion became more important. Jewels were added to everything, from rings, belts and collars to pins, brooches, headpieces, cufflinks, tie pins, and buckles. With increasing trade between nations and continents, more exotic materials and gemstones became available from far off lands – naturally these were reserved exclusively for the richest members of society. Again, the upper classes also wore the most gold and silver, while the lower classes had to content themselves with pewter, bronze or copper.
Early modern jewellery
From the 17th century onwards, jewellery making techniques became ever more advanced, with ever more beautiful and elaborate results. Gems were cut instead of just polished for added sparkle, and the fashion for dark fabrics – particularly with men – meant that all jewellery accessories had to be dazzling. Botanics and bow designs became enormously popular, only adding to the opulence of pieces from this time. More and more gemstones were used, or if not gemstones, polished enamel with highly detailed artistic depictions of various things – animals, family crests, portraits. Designers began to look back at past eras for inspiration so the same styles that the ancient Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians became popular once again, among other eras such as Renaissance art and, of course, the every popular subject of the natural world.
Around this time the industrial revolution was taking place, making jewellery more affordable and accessible to all classes. While at first this was celebrated, with time more and more people came to dislike the homogenous styles and fashions, craving something unique. And so hand crafted pieces became popular again, at first with the upper classes and gradually filtering down as improved working conditions gave people more disposable income. From 1900 onwards, jewellery designers had cast off their usual habits of looking to times gone by for inspiration and instead focussed on creating modern, never before seen styles using geometric patterns or influences from the far east.
Men’s jewellery fashions
Just like women’s fashion, men’s fashion is ever changing, although perhaps the specific styles of dress don’t change quite so rapidly as women’s fashion. There have, however, been many changes in jewellery wearing habits for men across the centuries. In the late 16th century to the end of the 17th, it was customary for men to wear a single earring on one ear, usually a drop style earring rather than a stud. As fashion in men’s clothing changed, so their jewellery changed with it. In many cases, jewellery was practical as well as decorative. For example, elaborately folded cravats needed a pin to keep everything in place; hence the tie pin. Watch chains came about when the fashion for big voluminous trousers changed to skin-tight pantaloons, and there was no folds or pockets in which to store a timepiece. Cufflinks too served to keep sleeves closed as well as looking good!
Embellished weapons, while not exactly practical, were wildly popular from the middle ages right up until the 19th century, although the weapons themselves transitioned from elaborate sword hilts to less deadly devices such as pocket knives! In the 20th century, when office work became more and more mainstream, wrist watches became the most popular form of men’s jewellery, and probably still is today. In the 1940s and 1950s in post-war North America, luxury watches emerged, creating a huge industry that is still booming today.
These days, the type of jewellery popular with men includes cufflinks, tie pins, rings, pendants, and of course, watches. Simple chain necklaces are also ever popular. Styles and fashions are incredibly varied depending on the place, age, profession, and personal taste of the person in question – thankfully, men are no longer constrained by strict rules and conventions when it comes to jewellery, and can where what they like, when they like, how they like! For some inspiring Irish ideas, have a look at Claddagh Design’s online store for cufflinks, pendants, tie pins and rings based on the jewellery of the ancient Celts. Each piece has been personally designed and crafted by our resident silversmiths from sterling silver, hallmarked in Dublin Castle, and polished to perfection.
Try on your own set of torc cufflinks, get yourself a traditional Claddagh ring, or show off your Irish heritage with some Celtic knot or Ogham designs. We’ll even engrave your family crest on a piece of jewellery! If you have a custom idea in mind, we are more than happy to work with you to bring it to life. We’ll create the design, involve you every step of the way, and use only the best materials and techniques to finish off your dream piece of jewellery.