The growing acceptance of transgenderism and nontraditional gender roles has cast the spotlight on androgynous culture—including the flourishing unisex jewelry marketplace
Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele is a man who flirts with androgyny on a daily basis. His collection includes men’s ruffled blouses, flowing silk neckerchiefs, and heavily embroidered—and often bedazzled—custom tuxedos worn by devotees like Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto. But one look at the fistfuls of rings on his personal Instagram feed—from gemstone-encrusted heirlooms to hand-carved estate treasures—makes clear that he’s no stranger to gender-bending himself.
The fashion set is in thrall to Michele—and jewelry tastemakers should be as well. Why? Because he’s among a passionate cohort of style-setters helping the world to see that jewelry need not be assigned gender roles.
Jill Maurer, a Raleigh, N.C.–based designer, is on board with the cause. “When I made my first necklace, I commented that it would look great on a male friend of mine and it occurred to me that there really shouldn’t be men’s jewelry and women’s jewelry at all,” she says. “Why did we create that boundary in the first place? We totally made it up. It isn’t real. I decided then and there to tear down that barrier and allow anyone the freedom to wear what they love.”
Maurer’s 18k gold, sterling silver, and gemstone designs—inspired by ancient archaeological objects such as weaponry, cave drawings, and primitive tools—are intended to appeal to a collective sense of the past rather than a gender-normative position codified by popular society.
“I started out designing pieces for me,” Maurer explains. “While I wear feminine clothing, I have always been drawn to more masculine jewelry. I’m attracted to jewelry that is bold and weighty with clean lines, curves, and texture—a look that works well for anyone.”
Gentleman Gangster link pendant in 18k white gold with black rhodium sterling silver chain; $3,360; Hannah Martin, London; 44-203-302-1964; hannahmartinlondon.com ?
Many designers who spoke to JCK acknowledged that their designs were initially meant for one gender, but were quickly adopted by surprising customers. Jim Hinz and Todd Vladyka, founders of Editions de Re, a 3-year-old Philadelphia-based design collaborative, said they set out to create an essential jewelry brand for men.
“We rooted the collection in menswear essentials like signet and band rings, cuffs, cufflinks, and a belt buckle, so it was easy to design the pieces because we designed them for guys like us who sought to accessorize but were limited of options,” Vladyka says. “What we did not expect was how much they would appeal to women as well. The men and women who wear our pieces share the same idea about jewelry and how it should be worn—so in retrospect it made sense.”
According to Vladyka, the key to creating successful unisex jewelry is keeping things simple, substantial, and well made. This gives customers the freedom to decide how to make the pieces their own.
The designers at New York City–based Walters Faith arrived at the same conclusion, although they came at it from the opposite direction. Founded in 2013 by longtime friends Mollie Good and Stephanie Abramow, the line was conceived as a women’s collection featuring a synthesis of bold and fine—pieces that were strong, of exceptional quality, and impactful. This aesthetic imbued the jewels with a naturally masculine feel that extended to the brand’s signature hexagon shape.
“It was not intentional, but due to the response from certain retail partners that men were gravitating toward our pieces, we started to adjust the size of the rings to offer larger sizes for requests from men,” Abramow says.
This simple change opened up the brand’s client base immediately, expanding future sales potential. “Our aesthetic is very gender neutral,” Abramow explains. “We believe in simplicity. Clean lines appeal to both men and women, but all our pieces have a nice weight, which helps add to the unisex appeal.”
Large Rhino Horn Pendant in jasper with natural white zircon mutura diamond accents in dark rhodium-plated sterling silver; $149; Graziela Gems for ISF; 800-961-1170; grazielagems.com
Bracelet in black braided leather with sterling silver push clasp; $155; Samuel B. Collection, Great Neck, N.Y.; 516-466-1826; samuelb.com
While clean lines, bold scale, and substantial weight are three obvious hallmarks of unisex jewelry, a fourth may be less clear: mixed-metal designs. According to designer Nichole McIver, founder of St. Cloud, Minn.–based Acanthus, her signature warm/cool pairing is often the most compelling factor in attracting clientele, regardless of gender.
“I specialize in combining 24 karat gold on oxidized silver in the form of highlights and detailed patterns,” she says. “I think this bold mixed-metal combination is a main reason why both men and women wear my work.”
Acanthus takes inspiration from cultures of the past to create pieces that are unique and feel hand-crafted, and McIver’s goal is to “make pieces that explore the juxtapositions of raw and refined, past and present, masculine and feminine, but always powerful.”
While many designers fall into a unisex category by accident, master goldsmith Tony Lent, the designer behind New York City–based Anthony Lent, wasn’t surprised that his highly detailed and sculptural works featuring anatomical references such as faces, hands, and skulls appealed to customers across the board.
“We always knew that the work would appeal to both men and women, because the images and sculpture that we work with often have symbolic and emotional meaning that is not gender based,” says Max Lent, Tony’s son and business partner along with brother David Lent. “Much of our work is feminine in the design of the specific piece, but the imagery is interesting for both men and women.”
A well-honed and unique design aesthetic is far more important, he suggests, than a specific scale or size. “We work with ideas, images, and sculpture before we move into designing jewelry,” he says.
Gender comes into play later—when dealing with measurements or how a piece falls on the body. If the design is solid and relatable, he explains, it’s all about proportion and wearability in terms of the end consumer.
Mini Rocky Arrow studs in 14k gold vermeil; $80; Amanda Hagerman, Washington, D.C.; 570-244-5809; amandahagermanjewelry.com
Hoping to amp up your unisex jewelry sales? Allison Bartline, co-owner with Heidi Lieberman of Gem Gem in Portland, Ore., intentionally curated a roster of designers that are unique and appeal to people who, regardless of their gender, truly appreciate and love jewelry.
“Really, it’s all how you look at the pieces individually,” Bartline says. “What makes a piece specifically for women or men? The size of the ring? The length of the chain? Earrings are more commonly made for women, but that isn’t always true either. Some men have their ears pierced and enjoy wearing some of the smaller earrings from time to time.”
To successfully sell to male, female, and transgender clients, Bartline suggests practicing what you preach by wearing jewelry to work that could appeal to any client who walks in the door. Other tips include stocking gender-neutral styles like signet rings and offering earrings as singles rather than just in pairs.
Lauren Ramirez, owner of Quercus Studio in Raleigh, N.C., offers these practical tips: “It’s important to stock a wide variety of ring, bracelet, and necklace sizes. We have clients of all kinds who prefer more feminine, or lean toward more masculine, styles. I’ve made an effort to keep options for 2-millimeter rings in size 10, and 6-millimeter designs in size 5. There’s power in handing a person a ring that fits.”
She also suggests merchandising without regard to gender, offering a glimpse of all styles in her shop’s display cases. “Nothing is separated, and I believe there are no rules,” Ramirez says.
Most important, however, is language—it must be a conscious part of your sales approach. “Fiancé, girlfriend, and boyfriend are overused,” Ramirez says. “Removing these go-to labels can be necessary in helping people feel more comfortable choosing a simple gift or an engagement ring for their partners. Education on the latest gender vocabulary is recommended for all, and approaching new and existing clients without assumption is an invaluable skill.”
Designers open up about their most successful unisex pieces:
Dave signet ring in 20k yellow gold; $2,600; Editions de Re, Philadelphia; 267-474-2854; editionsdere.com
• Nichole McIver, Acanthus, St. Cloud, Minn.: “The Golden Chasm ring set consists of two rings that fit together like puzzle pieces, with the 24 karat gold highlighting the jagged edges. Each one is unique and can be shared with a friend or partner—a take on the ‘best friends’ two-piece charms.”
• Tony Lent, Anthony Lent, New York City: “The Black Skull ring—a large-scale, blackened silver skull (no lower jaw) with 18 karat yellow gold teeth. The skull reminds us of our own mortality, and its symbolism is universal and genderless.”
• Todd Vladyka, Editions de Re, Philadelphia: “Our band rings, the Dave and the Flathead signets. They are substantial, so when they are worn individually they look elegant, and when piled up together, can create an incredibly opulent effect.”
• Jill Maurer, Raleigh, N.C.: “My Vertebrae rings are offered in three different scales (small, medium, large) and numerous styles so you can mix and match a stack that flatters your hand.”
• Stephanie Abramow, Walters Faith, New York City: “The Jumbo Saxon chain-link bracelet and Grant Cubed rings fill a void in the market for everyday classic, relaxed, and modern fine jewelry.”
Top: Photograph by Ted Morrison
Summer earrings and ring and Harlequin necklace in sterling silver, $80–$760, Gonzalo Palma, Lima, Peru, 51-999-195-076, gonzalopalma.com; Velocity cuff and G. Frost Victory ring in brass, $168–$230, Lulu Frost, NYC, 212-965-0075, lulufrost.com; bracelet in tungsten carbide, $215, Bike Link chain bracelet in stainless steel, $169, ID bracelet in stainless steel with PVD accents, $215, Triton, NYC, 800-332-9344, tritonjewelry.com
Inset: Roots bracelet in oxidized sterling silver; $185; Efva Attling, NYC; 212-510-7072; efvaattling.com