Warrior pieces – how jewellery toughened up
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Warrior references have been storming the runways recently, with labels from Dior and Balenciaga to Julien Dossena’s Rabanne proffering fierce femininity in the form of medieval metal-plate necklines, chainmail gowns and bags, diamond-dusted tabards and full, 3D-printed suits of armour. Sarah Burton’s last show at the helm of Alexander McQueen cited the influence of female anatomy and Elizabeth I – bringing to mind the monarch’s rousing words to the troops at Tilbury. This was all heart, guts and backbone – and nothing “weak and feeble” about it, thank you very much.
In jewellery, this fighting spirit has been gaining momentum for some time. Part gladiator, part Wonder Woman, it shines light on the relationship between beauty and strength. “Jewellery has an incredible amount of power for an object – it’s a sort of vessel for the spirit of a person,” says Francesca Amfitheatrof, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of jewellery, who has (as is evident in her new book) a long-held fascination with armour. Since her first high-jewellery collection for the house, inspired by Joan of Arc and “medieval women who changed the world”, the designer has found herself “obsessed” not only with the protective qualities that echo the LV trunk, but with harnessing components such as the deep, sensuous curve often found at the neck of suits of armour. Breastplate-like necklaces have been the heroes of every collection, right up to the latest, Deep Time. These large-scale, one-off, maximum-impact designs, with copious stones, command awe but articulate beautifully for ease of movement.
Now others are getting in formation. Beyoncé’s recent tour saw her atop a mechanical horse and wearing custom Elsa Peretti Tiffany metal-mesh regalia. Its affiliated jewellery, in Peretti’s iconic mesh material, circles neatly back to the ’70s and the rise of feminism.
Meanwhile, Van Cleef’s long hammered gold cuffs, first introduced in the 1970s, look similarly on-point. Chainmail elements are appearing everywhere from Hermès to Pomellato; titanium, known for its strength but also lightness, is on the rise; and even Chanel’s Tweed high-jewellery collection is being described as “softest armour”, despite its namesake only ever having had to battle the elements.
The mood isn’t entirely unexpected, says fashion historian Dr Valerie Steele, director of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology museum, whose 2006 exhibition Love and War: the Weaponised Woman explored the influence of armour on what we wear. “We see it historically, and cross-culturally, as something that keeps coming back,” she says. “Of course, there is so much glamour – often meretricious glamour – in combat. But any kind of armoured clothing or jewellery is about psychological as well as physical protection.”
“There’s no question there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of anger right now,” she adds. “It’s about the climate; politics; the repression of women – this rise in misogyny, all these right-wing movements checking women’s bodily integrity. I think a lot of people feel that it’s not enough to be arguing rationally: you have to fight back.”
Art jeweller Cora Sheibani is exploring a metal-writing technique called “damascening”, which was used on ancient ceremonial weapons, while a coterie of fine jewellers is hammering out gleaming, gem-studded sabres, daggers and arrows to be worn as pendants, studs or bracelet charms. Liv Luttrell, a sculpturally led artisan based in London, has channelled the “powerful tension in the metal” into her cool and sharp spear-tip earrings. Californian Loren Nicole has forged an entire collection around an imagined trove of softly weathered 22ct-gold Viking treasure, using rope motifs, amulets and shields – while also offering tapered “archer rings” (which, in the Mughal tradition, protected the thumb when drawing arrows) with a sensuous, velvety finish.
There’s crossover with the trend for amulets too. Nigora Tokhtabayeva launched her brand of “bold minimalism”, Tabayer, in 2021, seeking to marry modern design with a spiritual element. “I was always drawn to the symbolism in jewellery – my grandmother always put something on me to protect me,” she explains. “I wanted to create a new, universal symbol of protection that could be worn by any culture.” The result was a strong, rounded, sculptural knot with a sharp edge, inspired by the reed bundle of Inanna, an ancient Mesopotamian “goddess of protection”, which she plays with at different scales (most recently in the new Oera III collection) for the neck, wrists, ears and fingers. “It’s meant to be a repository of strength,” she adds. “It has a warm, comfortable feeling, but that strong edge.”
All this chimes, says Amfitheatrof, with a new age of self-expression. “Women are choosing their own pieces – and we are more daring than we’ve ever been allowed to be,” she says. “Men, before, would buy what they could see on their opposite sex; a lot of necklaces and earrings with blue sapphires because they felt comfortable with them,” she says. “Now, women are much more assertive and have the freedom and financial power to be adventurous and exciting.”
Like Tokhtabayeva, she believes it’s about women wielding this autonomy, not aggression. “Joan of Arc led men into battle but she never used her sword; she didn’t actually have to use violence,” she says. “I love that as a metaphor for women and jewellery and the protection that it can have… not because you’re going to attack but because you’re going to lead.”