At a tony, star-studded event celebrating Tiffany & Co.’s latest high-jewelry collection last month, there was an uncharacteristic sense of nonchalance in the air.
The first high-jewelry concept by the brand’s chief artistic director Reed Krakoff exhibited a new, casual mood. While megawatt diamonds and rubies remained consistent with the house’s history, many designs featured an informal twist. A circular pendant, for example — featuring nearly 40 carats of aquamarines and 14 carats of diamonds — was strung not on a bedazzled platinum chain but rather a simple knotted cord made of leather.
This relaxed mood is being felt throughout the jewelry industry — a sign that haute joaillerie is adapting to a more casual moment in fashion and society. It is the result of a tangled web of social changes — particularly the runoff, jewelers say, of post-recession values and an ongoing change in how jewelry is consumed, as an increasing percentage of the industry’s clientele becomes a woman shopping for herself.
“There is no question that life is becoming more casual and as a result, fine jewelry needs to keep up with that. I think people find themselves dressing up less frequently; they still go to important events but they think differently about how to dress for those events. This has certainly impacted the way we think about designing our collection — we try to design for today’s aesthetic. It doesn’t mean we don’t design important pieces of high value, but we are thinking if someone can wear it often,” said Kwiat and Fred Leighton chief executive officer Greg Kwiat.
“The challenge in such a rarefied world is crafting pieces that are extraordinary but at the same time also wearable frequently and effortlessly. Often these are contradictory ideas. However, everything we create is connected by the notion of everyday luxury — to create something incredible and rare, but also something that can really be enjoyed as a part of modern life,” Alessandro Bogliolo, Tiffany’s ceo, said of the company’s design ethos. Among the images featured in the jeweler’s Blue Book catalog of high jewelry is a photo of actress Gal Gadot reclining in Tiffany lariats — paired with jeans and a white T-shirt, rather than a ballgown.
Fashion industry consultant Robert Burke summarized the movement: “It wasn’t that long ago, people used to discuss what’s appropriate for day and night. All of that is obviously out the window now.”
The fine jewelry industry flourished in the mid- to late-19th century — a time that saw the founding of maisons including Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Bulgari. The Industrial Revolution heralded a new class of private wealth that intermingled with royalty — the two visually sparring off at cotillions and royal balls, outwardly boasting their wealth with lavish jewelry.
Fast-forward nearly 200 years and these formal occasions are now occurring with dwindling frequency. Nowadays, should one buy a diamond wreath necklace, it is likely to sit in the safe for weeks, if not months at a time. Jewelers say that this has become a primary concern among collectors, who wish to buy things they can wear every day.
“There is definitely a feeling today in the broader world that you have to be careful not to show off wealth. People with wealth are not consuming as conspicuously. This has translated into the jewelry world. They don’t mind spending money on jewelry if it’s an important piece, but they don’t want to walk around saying — ‘look at me, how much I spent.’ It doesn’t feel congruent with today’s general atmosphere,” Kwiat said, noting that Fred Leighton has recently passed on acquiring lavish jewels that are out of line with today’s stylistic attitudes.
This is forcing the industry to adapt — designing and dealing in precious stones that suit a new, toned-down taste level. There has been a rise in unpolished gold and unfaceted cabochon stones and designs that feature important stones in less obvious ways (as seen in designer Ana Khouri’s anatomically leaning work). These pieces are no less valuable than the big sparkly gems worn in the past, but their aesthetic is more wearable. This new tone suits Millennial consumers, an age group that is beginning to take an interest in jewelry collecting and tends to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth.
“The younger clients are looking for staples right now. They are not coming in to get the bright pink sapphire ring, they are getting something they can get a lot of wear out of,” noted Frank Everett, Sotheby’s senior vice president for jewelry. He added that Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry from the Seventies — inlaid with turquoise or coral — is performing strongly at the moment, particularly for its casual appeal.
Goldsmith Jean Prounis, age 25, launched her namesake collection in 2017 — handwrought from an ancient alchemy of 22-karat gold. Prounis prefers using cabochon stones over those that are sparkly and faceted and polishes her jewelry with a dull luster rather than high shine. Her designs have found their way onto shelves at Dover Street Market New York and Holly Golightly in Copenhagen.
“For me, wearability is the most important part of design. I think it’s important to my brand that you can wear a lot of valuable objects and still feel safe — even as a social target. You don’t want to come off as someone wearing $20,000 worth of diamonds. You can know you are wearing a well-made piece and not feel like everyone else has to know,” Prounis said.
Also at the core of jewelry’s casualization is the rise of women purchasing jewelry for themselves, which is particularly prevalent among Millennials.
Fine jewelry has long been geared toward women, but aimed at a man’s bank account. With self-purchasing, women are buying pieces as “part of their outfits,” and seek unique designs that speak to their personal aesthetics, rather than waiting for a man to bestow them with the jewelry of his choice.
Self-purchasing has become especially lucrative for female designers, who bring an intuitive perspective to their craft. Irene Neuwirth — who has made her name with thoughtful, colorful designs — says that about 90 percent of her clientele is self-purchasing women.
“Back in the day, men would buy their wife or girlfriend jewelry so it would look as expensive as possible. I think now people are much more drawn to something a little less in-your-face. My client is a woman really expressing herself through jewelry. It’s such a personal thing, I think men need a little reprogramming when they are buying fine jewelry, not just looking for things covered in diamonds and emeralds,” she said.
Neuwirth is among a contingency of female jewelers to design pieces that express a more relaxed attitude — the result, they say, of creating items that they would like to wear themselves.
Temple St. Clair founded her namesake line in 1986, and has found a following of “women looking for a very high quality of jewelry made in the old-world tradition, yet modern, wearable and versatile for evening.”
She noted that “self-purchasing women are buying and investing in high jewelry pieces but want to wear it more casually, They don’t have debutante balls, they want to wear and enjoy these pieces — that is the next frontier for me.”
In Copenhagen, jewelry Sophie Bille Brahe creates pieces that are “designed for what I want to wear living in Copenhagen — you won’t see a lot of girls in high heels. We are all on bikes. So in that sense, designing jewelry to just be part of your outfit that you can wear from morning to the evening. It becomes a part of you, not just something you dress up with.”
Bille Brahe’s rings are purposefully sculpted “so that they wouldn’t annoy me during my day, and so I can still use my hands when I’m working.” She says that 99 percent of her clients are self-purchasing women, who visit stores like Dover Street Market, Twist and Isetan for her designs.
“I think women have a lot more to say today rather than 20 years ago when men would just buy a classic engagement ring,” she said. “The whole jewelry scene has changed — it’s not just one thing anymore — there is a lot of space for different directions.”