Customer Watch: Office Jewelry–A Time for Play at the Office?

Could there be a more curiously timed fashion editorial than one that takes the form of a “memo to working women everywhere” and proclaims that dressing for the office “shouldn’t be all work and no play”?


With the national jobless rate at 8.5 percent, its highest in a quarter-century, and predicted by some analysts to reach double digits, and with some states, including California, already having reached that insidious threshold, is this sound advice? With law firms, representing the epitome of the ultimate conservative office environment, casting off even seasoned attorneys at an unprecedented rate, is this the time to be dressing playfully at work?


Well, yes and no.  


The feature I reference is from the April 2009 issue of Elle magazine, and it discusses “the new work trouser, pretty python prints, office jewelry, and more” [emphasis added]. The concept of office jewelry isn’t explained further, except presumably through the choices of jewelry shown in the six-page spread.


The magazine explains its philosophy, even implicitly acknowledging that these are not easy times in the working world: “Although you may face a serious day of job hunting or boardroom brawls, there’s no reason your getup has to be as practical and monochromatic as a manila envelope. So give the ax to your conservative button-downs and fire your boring pencil skirts in favor of safari jackets, python prints (yes, you can!), mismatched separates and funky trousers.”


  [A small portion of the highlighted choices for office wear, 
   including Tag Heuer watch and Van der Straeten cuff]


Let me separate out a few of the specific comments:


Elle says nix on button-downs. Agree. Certainly there are law firms populated by women attorneys who wear conservative skirt suits and hairstyles they haven’t changed since college. But button-downs? Really? I went to the only web site I could think of that might still sell women’s button-down shirts, Brooks Brothers, and am happy to report that you’ll find nary a button-down on the site, although they do have some stylish bow blouses like the styles seen on the First Ladies Obama and Sarkozy in Europe this past week. (I was surprised, however, to see that Brooks Brothers sells glass pearl beads and gold-plated jewelry for women.)


Elle says nix on monochromatic. Disagree. True monochromatic dressing is one of the most elegant and expensive ways to dress. Done in black it’s very artsy; done in another business-appropriate and sophisticated color, it can be quite wonderful.


Elle says yea on mismatched separates. Agree. Because monochromatic is too expensive, difficult and time-consuming a look to construct consistently (except in black), and because it can be interesting to mix things up. Having said that, I do not think that a short, $3,485.00 Swarovski crystal-embellished perforated leather skirt is appropriate attire for work for anyone outside the fashion or entertainment industry or another exceedingly creative career path; certainly it is not appropriate for a woman who wishes to present the appearance of a competent professional in an office setting. It would be all wrong on your lawyer and indeed, you might wonder if her fashion choices are why her fees are so high.


But I digress. My focus here is on jewelry. What does the magazine consider appropriate office jewelry?


Watches, of course: Two choices from Tag Heuer in stainless steel; one by Michael Kors in gold-plated stainless steel. All classic and lovely choices, but also practical and conservative, when you think about it.


Bracelets: And lots of them. Gold-plated and brass bangles by Amrita Singh. A brass ribbon cuff by Van der Straeten. A “Pearl bracelet” (actually comprised of “resin pearls” edged with gold-plated brass) by J. Crew shown teamed up with a rock crystal and gold bracelet by Seaman Schepps. Wood bangles by Coach. A glass stone wide leather cuff by Club Monaco. And a “Sterling silver plated-gold spiked bracelet” from designer Tom Binns. All but the last couple, reasonably conservative choices.  



Necklaces: “Gold rosette necklace” (actually gold-plated) by Nicole Romano. A long necklace of dark gunmetal with hanging anchor charms by Vera Wang Lavender Label. A leather and stone bib necklace by Club Monaco. All creative and somewhat playful choices for a season when statement necklaces are an essential component of a stylish woman’s wardrobe.


    [Club Monaco necklace; earrings by Kenneth Jay Lane]


Earrings: Gold-plated geometric danglers by Tory Burch. Long crystal danglers by Kenneth Jay Lane. Both are eye-catching choices outside the norm of conservative office attire.


What I find fascinating is the message given off by several of the items of jewelry chosen for office wear. Playfulness is not how I would characterize the vibe being given off. Alongside classic watches and bracelet designs, some of the pieces are downright prickly in appearance.


The five rosettes on the rosette necklace, for instance, are woven nests of metal wire punctuated by the pointed ends of the metal wire. The crystal earrings are crosshatches of sharp lines. And the Tom Binns bracelet? It’s called a spiked bracelet for a reason. Binns is known for his punk-influenced tough-chic designs.  If you saw a candidate for a job wearing that bracelet, would you hire her? The style reminds me of the dragon-lady fingernails that caused a former employer to relocate me from another state at great expense rather than hire the local candidate with the scary talons.


    [Tom Binns spike bracelet, left, and seen accessorizing an ensemble, right]


Jewelry gives off messages. The former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called these “signals” on her recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, where she identified the design of her brooch as a large bee which she wore that evening, she told Maher, because he is known for his stinging remarks. Playfulness personified!


To the job seeker and to working women everywhere, I agree with Elle and say, dressing for the office shouldn’t be all work and no play. Dress professionally but don’t be as bland as a manila envelope. Don’t look dated; incorporate current trends into your look. An interesting piece of jewelry can be a great conversation starter. Develop a sense of personal style and distinguish yourself from your colleagues.


At the same time, pay attention to the messages you convey by your overall image and specifically by your jewelry. It’s good to look professional. It’s good to look friendly and approachable. Be mighty careful about the message you’re conveying if, to the office, you wear spikes on your wrist.