The smart jewelry revolution is coming. But can device manufacturers transform geek to chic?
Remember when nobody thought a phone could be a fashion statement? Sure, having a BlackBerry showed your boss you were always available, or a Bluetooth headset meant you’d be ready for a crucial call. But no one would mistake these devices for items of adornment.
Fast-forward to today, when the hottest accessory is Apple’s gold-tone iPhone 5S, and you realize how far we’ve come. “Non-interactive jewelry currently communicates social status, style, and personality for its wearer, but increasingly it is high-end electronic products such as the iPhone that are communicating the same thing,” says Sense6 Design CEO Jeff Axup, an expert who wrote his doctoral thesis on wearable technology.
Many industry watchers now say jewelry is the next frontier for smart devices, and paint a picture of a not-too-distant future when those ubiquitous smartphones will be augmented by rings, pendants, or bracelets that deliver and transmit information.
“Certainly there’s room, because the industry needs to look for a new category to grow consumer demand more aggressively than it has in a while,” says Marty Hurwitz, CEO of research and development company MVI Marketing.
The Cuff, debuting this fall, will offer bracelet and pendant options ($50–$150).
Fitness tracking devices like the Fitbit One clip and the Nike+ FuelBand have made wearable tech mainstream; Samsung and a few other manufacturers have experimented with smartwatches that sync to a wearer’s phone. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the concept of wearable tech garnered significant buzz.
The downside: These gadgets might work well, but no one would accuse them of being beautiful. With Silicon Valley as an early champion, the aesthetics of wearable technology fell behind—often way behind—technological considerations. “There is a huge potential to provide useful wearable technologies to a largely untapped female market,” Axup says. “Many of the wearables being produced aren’t fashionable.”
That’s about to change, as some big names in fashion see the potential in mashing up high-tech and haute couture. Preppy-cool designer Tory Burch signed on with Fitbit to make “super-chic” fitness trackers in her “signature colors, prints, and designs,” scheduled to roll out this year. Chipmaker Intel partnered with design house Opening Ceremony on a smart bracelet that will be sold at Barneys New York. Intel also is collaborating with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to explore wearables and encourage the nascent market’s growth.
“Our research with consumers shows that there’s a pretty high interest, although a scarcity of product, to look at things like jewelry that might interact with the Web or their phones or bodies in some way,” Hurwitz says.
In a recent study, MVI’s Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council found that more than half of respondents said they’d prefer wearable technology that looked like fine jewelry but incorporated “hidden” high-tech elements. Fewer than 20 percent said they were “indifferent” to aesthetic appearance.
What smart jewelry can do
Smart jewels tend to work the same way as existing wearable devices like fitness trackers or wireless cellphone headsets. Short-distance technology such as Bluetooth or (less frequently) near-field communication connects a device to a user’s smartphone or other “base station.” Most smart jewelry is both iOS and Android compatible, which covers the vast majority of American smartphone owners.
Developers and manufacturers are toying with all sorts of functions for their high-tech baubles.
Notifications: With smartwatches like the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear, you know if you have an incoming call or text just by looking at your wrist—but the bulky, tech-minded design limits their appeal.
Products such as Mighty Cast’s (mightycast.com) Nex Band—a sort of charm bracelet—and Ezio Lifestyle’s (eziolifestyle.com) line of four smart pendants and four smart bracelets offer a stylish solution. The devices deliver notifications like alerts about incoming calls and texts via multicolored LED lights. Ezio’s jewelry, which the brand says will be out this summer, warns users if their phones are out of range. The Nex Band—which Mighty Cast CEO and cofounder Adam Adelman says will ship in October—provides social media activity alerts.
|Mighty Cast ($49.99) is now accepting preorders for the Nex Band via thenexband.com.|
Tech company CSR partnered with jeweler Cellini on a prototype silver pendant that offers similar functionality, but the company says it doesn’t have a date to begin production.
Personal protection: Some start-ups are experimenting with smart jewelry that lets the user immediately call for help in an emergency. “People wear jewelry anyway. Why wouldn’t you want your jewelry to protect you?” Axup says. “It actually is kind of ridiculous how unprotected you are. I’ve done some tests on how long it takes you to get to your cellphone. For most women, it’s 30 seconds to a minute.”
The Guardian Angel, which can be worn as a pendant or bracelet
Sense6 Design’s Artemis (artemisfashion.com) can be embedded in a bracelet or pendant. When pressed, it alerts a third-party security service, takes an audio recording of an event, and, if the user chooses, alerts a loved one via text. “You don’t have to sacrifice looking good,” Axup says. “What we’re aiming for is a backup plan.” Similarly, the sterling silver Guardian Angel (the-guardianangel.com) sends a fake call to the wearer’s smartphone.
Also debuting this fall, Cuff (cuff.io) is a transmitter wearers can press in an emergency to summon help. It also vibrates if someone in their designated network tries to reach them on their mobile phone. The CuffLinc device itself is embedded into a collection of nine metal or leather bracelets, necklaces, and keychains.
“I wanted it to be beautiful, but I wanted a piece for every occasion, the same way you’d pick your jewelry in real life,” says CEO and founder Deepa Sood, who plans to license the technology so other companies can make an ever-greater variety of products.
In a different vein of protection, there’s Netatmo’s June (netatmo.com)—set for the second half of this year, says the company—a metallic “gem” that can be worn as a pin or a bracelet. It monitors sun exposure and warns you if you’re getting too many UV rays.
Fitness: Along with Burch’s Fitbit partnership, some other startups are developing activity-tracking devices that fashion-conscious consumers would happily sport outside the gym.
Misfit Wearables’ Shine (misfitwearables.com), which hit the market last year, can be worn as a necklace or wristband. The aluminum disk tracks steps as well as cycling and swimming activity. Lights around the edge show users how close they are to their activity goal for the day or display the time.
What it looks like
With customers becoming increasingly receptive to smart jewelry, how do designers replace geek with chic?
“I was looking at wearables and loving the functionality but not wanting to be caught dead in something that looks like Google Glass,” Sood says. “I think jewelers are curious about the intersection of fashion and function.”
It’s an ethos other smart jewelry manufacturers echo in their quest to bring fine jewelry into the 21st century. Computer chips are smaller than ever, but designers still have to figure out how to shoehorn a chip or LED lights or other technology into a fetching and (typically) feminine design.
A prototype of the QMedic
Luckily, the trend toward statement pieces helps, says Jyoti Singhvi, CEO of Jyoti Couture Jewelry. Singhvi, primarily a custom jeweler, was contracted by makers of QMedic, a safety alert device for the elderly, to come up with some fashionable designs for the company’s alert bracelets. “Aesthetically, I was driven by what my women would be wearing,” she says. “It just couldn’t look like a device.”
An even bigger design challenge: Many precious metals inhibit the transmissions of signals that make smart jewelry work. Sood says metal Cuff pieces tend to be brass, but they’ve found a way to mix things up. “We’ve created some custom finishes so it does look like gold and silver,” she says. Other pieces are made of leather to avoid blocking the radio waves.
Although Singhvi works only with precious metals in her regular line of work, she substituted resins and a Bakelite type of material in the QMedic bracelet. Some designs incorporate smoky quartz and Swarovski crystals for a little extra flash. “With technology like that,” she says, “you always have those kinds of constraints.”