It is almost Valentine’s Day, but that is not why I’m thinking about jewellery. Well, it sort of is, but it also really isn’t. Unfashionably, I love Valentine’s Day, but the spirit of Saint Valentine is very much one of card and flowers, to me. When did it get turned into expensive, sexy Christmas?
Jewellery and Valentine’s Day go together like – I was going to say Romeo and Juliet, but only the dreamy first date bit. Both jewellery and Valentine’s Day are about love, but jewellery has always been, as Valentine’s Day is now, also about money. In the bronze age, rings were traded as an early form of currency; the ancient Egyptians had wedding rings, a habit adopted by their Greek conquerers. Roman wedding rings were forged from iron, sometimes with a key motif to symbolise a wife’s control over household finances. For women who could neither work nor own property, jewellery given by a husband or a parent was both a love token – and a potential running away fund, to be squirrelled away just in case the love part didn’t work out. So, while it is fashionable to blame modern hypercapitalism for everything, jewellery was about money as well as love long before De Beers invented the diamond engagement ring with its 1947 slogan, “A diamond is forever”.
Jewellery, like underwear, is more deeply connected to the personal than the rest of our wardrobes. Shifts in how we live and how we think matter more than changes on the catwalk. The hopes and dreams for the future that have always been symbolised by a diamond are measured, increasingly, in ethical credentials rather than carats. Lab-grown diamonds have made sparkle accessibly priced, and sustainability credentials have boosted their status.
The brand Pandora claims that one of the smaller diamonds from its human-made Pandora Brilliance collection has a carbon footprint equivalent to that of a litre of milk, although the traditional diamond industry argues that ethical production of natural diamonds is more socially responsible than abandoning communities in Africa who rely on mining for their livelihoods.
That most jewellery is now bought by women for themselves (in 2018, 78% of purchases were made by women, according to Lyst) has changed everything. A world that was once gold, silver and white (with rose gold for the daring, woo-hoo!) has exploded into colour. Laura Lambert, the young founder and CEO of ethical fine jewellery brand Fenton, told me recently that the popularity of coloured gemstones reflected for her customers a feeling that modern love comes in many forms.
The diamond engagement ring is rooted in an era when a woman was allowed to dream of having a husband, but not of having a wife. (Me, I go weak at the knees for an emerald every time.) And if rainbow shades aren’t your thing, look out for a collection created by ethical fashion designer Amy Powney with British jewellery legend Monica Vinader, out next week, which mixes sustainable natural “galaxy” diamonds, which are grey, with seed-shaped keshi pearls.
Jewellery is about status and values, but it is also about the little things. Literally, at the moment. Have you tried wearing a mask with large earrings? Take off your mask and the ear loop catches in your earring and pulls it out, sending the butterfly fastening flying so that, even if you can pick up the earring, you can’t put it back in. Or the earring stays in, but the ear loop gets twisted into it, so that you are left clumsily trying to extricate mask from hoop. I have admitted defeat, and retreated into huggie hoops: doll-sized sparkly hoops which are small enough not to get in the way.
And small jewellery, for daytime at least, also feels more practical now that the world is opening up and outfit planning is increasingly complicated, with pilates classes jigsawed between meetings and stuff to do after work. The old me would have worn big earrings and taken them off for pilates, but if the new me did that she would almost certainly leave said earrings in the changing room. Jewellery that adds sparkle but is small enough not to get in the way feels right for now. That’s what I’ll be wearing on Valentine’s Day.