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From ancient kings to rap stars, jewelry is something men have always used to assert authority, express individuality, and elevate ones appearance. Jewelry is an easy detail to overlook, but one that – if you can master it – can lend the wearer a magnetism that’s impossible to ignore. We explore the past, present and future of men in jewelry to find out what makes it worth paying attention to.


Since prehistoric times, when our ancestors would decorate themselves with shells, teeth and bones to signify status or ward off evil, jewelry has been imbued with meaning. Men also used to wear much more of it than they do today. For hundreds of years in Japan the indigenous Ainu men and women wore earrings that were crafted from grapevines or brass, until the Japanese government outlawed men wearing them during the Meiji restoration in the 19th Century. Much longer ago, in Ancient Egypt, the elaborate gold and beaded collars that kings wore on their necks were believed to bring the wearer closer to the gods and protect them from evil, much like the blue ‘evil-eye’ Nazar talismans that you can still spot in flea markets today.
While the old reverence men held for jewelry has changed, it still permeates our culture. Nowhere is the ancient respect for the power of jewelry more apparent than in hip-hop, where the bond between rappers and gold is enough to make even Tutankhamun weep. The Rolex that Tupac Shakur gave to Biggie Smalls is the stuff of rap legend, as are the Jacob the Jeweler-designed statement chains worn by Kanye West and Jay-Z or Lil Jon’s diamond grills. Indeed, it approaches the absurd: Rick Ross spent 1.5 million dollars on a chain that features an iced-out rendering of his own face, while Quavo has a diamond encrusted Yoda. In perhaps the biggest development in recent hip-hop jewelry history, Lil Uzi Vert had a pink $24 million diamond implanted into his head. It pushed the boundaries of what jewelry could be, if making the rest of us feel a little uneasy for the implications of harboring a veritable fortune in your face.


The peculiarly masculine appeal of jewelry is something the Safdie Brothers explored in their 2019 movie Uncut Gems. Its portrayal of the Diamond District shyster Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler to great effect, shows us the power of desire behind flashy jewels, and not just because they signify wealth. In the story, the basketball player Kevin Garnett visits Ratner’s 47th Street shop to borrow a rare (and uncomfortably valuable) uncut opal smuggled from Ethiopia that he believes will help him win his next game. It spoke to how we give more meaning to ornamentation than is perhaps logical, but enforces the personal thrill of owning something shiny.
Gems, grills and chains are only just part of the story, however. In and out of hip-hop, there’s a surprising trend that today’s men are bringing back: pearls. On the red carpet, A$AP Rocky, Jaden Smith and Machine Gun Kelly have all been wearing pearl necklaces relatively consistently for the past few years, and Harry Styles, who has also been a proponent of pearls, made a statement at the 2019 Met Gala with a single drop pearl earring.
Though it may seem subversive for young male artists to start appropriating the ‘granny chic’ of pearls, men wearing them is nothing new. King Charles I, along with his gold-enameled pendant that contained 42 diamonds, was known for wearing a single pearl earring. He wasn’t alone: Sir Walter Raleigh wore his own pearl earrings as a sign of devotion to Queen Elizabeth I. And in William Harrison’s Description of England, published in 1587, the clergyman famously wrote: “Some lusty courtiers and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearl, in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God not to be a little amended.”


Speaking of lusty courtiers and gentlemen of courage, considerable commotion was also made last year over a piece of jewelry that no one saw coming: Connell’s chain. Worn by Paul Mescal in the breakout series Normal People, it was a simple, thin silver necklace that made people swoon, and inspired the dedicated Instagram account @connelschain that has drawn in over 175k followers to date. It was an example of how something as easy as putting on a chain can add a whole new dimension that, like a tattoo, is somehow more personal to a man than his clothes.
This sense of the personal power of jewelry is something that designers are taking note of, and we’re seeing increasing airtime afforded to it on the runway. Kim Jones, the Creative Director of Dior Men, lead the charge in this regard by bringing on Ambush’s Yoon Ahn as the French house’s Jewelry Design Director. Yoon’s chunky statement chains, rings, and bracelets in precious metals are helping to shape the brand’s identity in a tangible way, showing how crucial the details beyond the clothing can be. Still, it’s fair to say Ambush has known this since they started out. From the initial POW! knuckle rings made for Ambush co-owner Verbal’s performances onstage, to personal orders for Kanye West and Pharrell, their jewelry offering has always made a statement. It’s also always been genderless, encouraging the wearer to express their own creativity exactly how they want to.
The most fascinating thing about jewelry is that it signifies one quality that money can’t buy: confidence in one’s own style. Be it as simple as donning a signet ring, or making a statement with a padlock necklace, jewelry shows that the wearer is in command of his wardrobe, and there’s a certain magnetism to that. You may not believe in its power to ward off bad vibes, there’s no denying that a well-chosen accessory gives off a sense of self-assuredness. Whether you choose to channel that through a charm earring, a gold chain, or indeed a diamond in your forehead, is entirely your prerogative.

Text: Ashley Clarke