Necklaces, rings, bracelets, brooches, earrings - we usually associate jewelry with women, but in the past men wore way more jewelry. So why don't men wear jewelry today?
Male beauty standards change over time, and the same is true for jewelry standards. In the past, kings had rubies sewn into their clothes and ropes of pearls draped around their necks, showing off their wealth and power. Male jewelry was especially popular during the Renaissance, when men with earrings became a fashion trend. Of course, earrings never went out of style for pirates, and pirates loved their hoop earrings for some strange reasons.
The history of men's jewelry is all about first impressions: a man wearing a pile of gold, pearls, and rubies was respected. And is it really so different from men wearing expensive watches today? After all, it's not too late for U.S. beauty trends to change. Will next season's hottest trend be pearl necklaces for men?
Hans Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII is one of the most famous royal portraits in history, and you don't have to take a closer look to notice a lot of jewelry in the painting. Henry's wide necklace sparkles with jewels, and rubies glimmer like buttons down the front of his expensive, ornate outfit. Even the sleeves have jewels sewn in, and multiple rings adorn the ruler's hands.
But why would a 16th century monarch want to be shown wearing jewelry? Today, we mainly associate jewelry with women. But it wasn't that way in the past. During the Renaissance, men donned jewelry for the oldest reason in the book: to make themselves look better. The entire point of wearing jewelry was to show off your wealth, and men weren't going to let women be the only ones to wear necklaces, rings, and earrings if it meant showing off their status.
Jewelry was a way for men to show off their wealth, much like their clothes. During the Renaissance, men's clothes became more elaborate and more expensive. Rich, opulent fabrics were a way to convey wealth and power, and jewelry was another way to send the same message.
Take this portrait of Gustavus III of Sweden, painted in 1777. The monarch's elaborate necklace is probably the first place your eye goes. In four tiers, it includes symbols of power and wealth, providing visual proof of the king's power. It lays on top of an expensive fur coat made of ermine, the black spots (which were made from the ermine's tail) showing just how many animals went into making the garment. And then there's the ruler's clothes, which are embroidered in silver thread. The portrait is designed to pile as much wealth as possible onto the ruler's body, so of course he's not going to pass up the opportunity to wear jewelry.
Earrings were quite fashionable in 16th century England. Sir Walter Raleigh, the explorer and spy rumored to be the lover of Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, loved a good pearl earring. In this portrait, he is shown with a massive pearl in his ear. As a British chronicle wrote in 1577, “some lusty courtiers also and gentlemen of courage... wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearls, in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God to be no little amended.”
In 1616, Walter Raleigh set off to look for the fabled city of El Dorado (maybe to add to his jewelry collection), where he violated a peace treaty between Britain and Spain. In 1618, he was arrested and executed - but it probably had nothing to do with his taste in earrings.
Male rulers weren't the only ones who wore jewelry. Men like Jacopo Strada, an Italian courtier who worked for German rulers, also wanted to show off his wealth by donning jewelry. In this portrait by Titian, Strada is shown in his study, surrounded by wealth and evidence of his learning. He wears an elaborate gold chain, likely a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. He holds an antique statue and the coins casually tossed on his desk, plus the fur cape, are all evidence of his wealth.
Jewelry wasn't just a way to show off wealth. It was also a way for rulers to shower their courtiers with expensive gifts, like the necklace in this portrait.