Great jewelry knows no gender. While people might be culturally predisposed to understand the power of jewelry on the female form, the right combination of gem and gentleman can be just as powerful. If a man is confident enough, or has positioned himself as boundary-pushing enough in his fashion sense, then wearing a diamond rivière over the top of a tuxedo should be no problem at all.
These days, a man who wants to wear jewelry is usually relegated to design sensibilities that are stereotypically masculine—consisting of brushed steel, blackened silver, or retooled machine parts. Gone are the days of natural pearl stick-pins in silk cravats, jeweled cufflinks, layered gold medallions, thick chains intertwined with chest hair, and of course, the occasional diamond pinky ring. Or are they?
First, what’s the history of men wearing truly fabulous and significant jewelry? Of course, the arm of history is long, and people (of all genders) have been adorning themselves for eons with precious metals and stones. Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, and medieval kings naturally festooned their bodies with jewelry because jewels denote wealth and power, among many other things.
In India in the late 19th and early 20th century, diamonds were a huge part of royal life. Precious stones had symbolic and religious meanings, and the larger the stone, the more powerful the man who wore it. Many maharajas had tremendously significant jewelry, including the following two rulers, who prominently had their jewels set by the crème de la crème of the European jewelers.
The Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shri Sir Yeshwant Rao II Holkar XIV Bahadur, or the Maharaja of Indore for short, was one of the most well-known Indian royals in Europe and America, with very contemporary “Jazz Age” tastes for the most streamlined designs. At age 20, in 1930, the Maharaja of Indore was bestowed with full powers after his father abdicated, and instigated a change of interest in all things from the West. He and his wife, the Maharani Sanyogita, even had their photos taken by Man Ray. The Indore Pear Diamonds—two exceptional Golconda pear-shaped diamonds weighing around 47 carats each, were depicted in a portrait of the maharaja on a necklace created by European jeweler Chaumet. The portrait, painted in 1934 by Bernard Boutet de Monvel, after being exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985, was just recently auctioned in 2016 by Sotheby’s, and sold for almost 2.5 million euros.
The Indore Pear Diamonds were purchased by Harry Winston in 1946, and were sold multiple times by the jeweler over the decades. They made their way through Christie’s sales in 1980, and again in 1987, and now are in the private collection of Robert Mouawad, who also owns the Taylor Burton diamond, among many others.
Another Indian royal with a tremendous jeweled story to tell is the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh. He was in power in the early 20th century, a contemporary of the Maharajas of Indore, and famously had a necklace created by Cartier in 1928.
The Patiala Necklace is one of legend, with a sprawling length of platinum chain encrusted with diamonds that drape along a garment, completely enveloping the chest in massive gemstones. The necklace contained many colored diamonds and two Burmese rubies, as well as the pièce de résistance, the pale yellow 234.69-carat De Beers Diamond that the maharaja had inherited from his father, who purchased it in Paris in the 1880s.
This necklace was treasured and worn in many photographs by the Maharaja of Patiala’s son, Yadavindra Singh, who became the next maharaja when Bhupinder Singh died in 1938. In the 1940s, the necklace vanished from the royal treasury, and only decades later did the De Beers diamond, set free from its grandiose home, reappear at auction. In the 1990s, an expert from Cartier discovered disparate lengths of the necklace’s chain in an antique shop in London, and Cartier bought them up and recreated the necklace as best they could. They replaced the tremendously huge diamonds and rubies with cubic zirconia reproductions, and smartly display the semblance of the Patiala necklace around the world in exhibitions.
While the maharajas were certainly opulent and ostentatious, in these cases pushing boundaries by choosing Western designers, there was a certain royal reverence for their displays of wealth. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Henry Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey.
Paget was a very polarizing figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is known largely for his insanely lux lifestyle in which he lived well beyond his means. He was known as the “dancing Marquess” since he often performed à la Loie Fuller in voluminous costumes not always entirely meant for men. He had a predilection for perfumes, the latest fashions, and of course, jewelry. He was also known as “Toppy,” but that’s another story.
According to Wartski: The First One Hundred and Fifty Years by Geoffrey Munn, Paget aided the budding business of Morris Wartski in the late 19th century by lending his blessing to the acquisition of a shopfront in Bangor. Later on, Paget’s careless spending nearly ruined Wartski’s business. The Marquess had been declared bankrupt in 1904, and with debts of half a million pounds, or nearly 50 million pounds in 2018 currency, there was little to be done to balance the accounts of the jewelry shop where he had often indulged.
Munn writes that “The Marquess was all too aware that jewellery is the highest form of dress, and his interest in it amounted to a fetish. As far as Wartski was concerned this was a passion that was to be the making, and almost the breaking, of the firm. Emotionally disturbed and bankrupted by the results of his reckless extravagance, he died an unhappy death aged just thirty, but nonetheless he was warmly remembered by everyone who knew him.”
Many of the photographs of Paget that exist depict him in fabulous theatrical dress, and often wearing sunburst brooches and ribbon brooches made of nothing but diamonds, or draped endlessly in strands of pearls. Also with a certain dramatic flare for showmanship, and with similar (yet not disastrous) ties to Wartski, another fantastically fashioned Brit emerges into this narrative of men and their jewelry: Sir Elton John.
Rock stars and musicians have even more leeway from society-at-large to wear jewelry that isn’t typically worn by men in the mainstream. To say Elton John’s name is to conjure up images of feather boas, glitter-encrusted colored sunglasses, plunging necklines, and platform shoes. In 1978, at the premiere of the film Grease, Elton John attended the opening party with Olivia Newton John. Sir Elton sported a floppy newsboy cap, and a gold, enamel and sapphire Fabergé brooch on his lapel he had purchased from Wartski that same year. Throughout this year, John can be seen wearing this brooch quite often.
Of course, if there were any one performer in the 20th century who could out-camp Sir Elton John, it would have to be Liberace.
Liberace is synonymous with the hollow grandeur of Las Vegas, and thus a certain amount of stage presence and shine was of utmost importance to him as a performer. The man could be seen sparkling from space. As his fingers raced over the piano keys, each digit was bejeweled with thematic rings. He had a golden grand piano ring with diamond keys, and a candelabra ring with marquise-cut diamonds as the flames. He wore chains of gold with coins set with diamonds, and swaddled his wrists in bracelets. Gaudy would be an understatement. Many of the pieces of jewelry Liberace owned were in the ill-fated Liberace Museum in Vegas, now closed, and were later sold to little fanfare.
In our current era, while most men generally can’t match the flair of Liberace or the “dancing Marquess,” it has become a trend for red-carpet commentators to spot male celebrities wearing modest diamond Art Deco (and thus geometrically masculine) brooches on a lapel that add just a touch of glamour and sparkle to a dull dark suit. In 2018, many men in the public eye wear jewelry beyond the usual scope of things, from rappers to Sheikhs, but few today are wearing jewelry that would be considered to be museum quality. However, I know of one that is.
Karl Lagerfeld is known for his powdery pompadour, his dark glasses, pouty lips, leather gloves, and consistently black and white ensembles. He is also typically seen wearing a brooch in the center of his black silk cravat as he takes his bows at the Chanel runway shows.
Lagerfeld is a collector of Suzanne Belperron brooches. Belperron is a French jeweler who was working in the 1930s-1940s, and she never signed her pieces because “her style was her signature.” This signature was based upon a flair for modern design utilizing sumptuous carved hardstones set with diamonds and colorful gems. Lagerfeld is rarely seen without a Belperron brooch, and his collection has even been written about by Architectural Digest in 2012.
Lagergeld really cares about Belperron’s design sensibility, and long before she was a coveted collector’s item, he sought out her pieces in antique shops across Paris. He is so passionate about her work that he wrote the forward to the recently published book, Jewelry by Suzanne Belperron: My Style is My Signature.
Lagerfeld writes: “What I love in her work is the play of shine and shade. The stones are the shine and sepia-dim smoky quartz or pale chalcedony are the shade. Nobody did it the way she did before her. There is a humble splendor you can never find in other designers’ work before her. One feels that the heart always prevailed. I love the magic equilibrium in everything she designed.”
At the end of the day, great jewelry should be worn by a person who can carry its presence, no matter their gender. Rulers, rockers, and robber barons, among many others, are all perfectly suited to emblazon themselves with jewels. May the trend of powerful people wearing powerful jewelry continue!