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Notes on the Essential Jewelry Wardrobe

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I grew up a tomboy in a house full of men. When the time came to make my way in the grown-up world, I had to find my way more than the average city girl. One thing I quickly noticed was my total lack of a jewelry trousseau compared to most of my girlfriends, who had made it out of childhood with at least some pearl studs or a Tiffany bean on a dainty gold chain. Once I outgrew the ears full of silver hoops of the Post-punk era I belonged to, my mind turned to finding some modern classic bling to match my growing wardrobe of vintage couture.

Instead of relying on the women’s magazines, I went right to the source. I wrote to Cartier, Tiffany, and Harry Winston (or their respective media departments) and asked them to tell me what makes up a timeless jewelry wardrobe. The answers I got as a young woman kicked off a life-long obsession with the question that has been asked and answered by stylish women from Cleopatra to Liz Taylor:

What Comprises an Essential Jewelry Wardrobe?

It is a vast question with a myriad of answers. However, upon analysis of trends over the past two hundred years or so, a sort of jewelry shorthand does emerge, and I share it here.

For starters, which noble metal to choose?

While conventional wisdom has it that women need to have a modest jewelry wardrobe in white metal and another in yellow gold, the smart move is to pick your metal with care early on and make it your signature element. This way, your jewelry budget will go a lot farther and you can feel more confident about splurging on those signature pieces that round out the personality of a solid jewelry wardrobe. If you opt for yellow gold, as I have lately, I suggest splurging for 18K, as 14K often pales by comparison and tends to signal “Mall Jewelry” from 10 feet away.

 

Earrings

The Big Three are:

Pearl Studs
Preferably Akoya, and at least 7 mm in size. White is the obvious choice, but black Tahitian pearls are not a bad choice either. You can try Mikimoto or Assael. Pearls should be luminous, color true, and have a deep, mirror-like shine to them.

A Good Diamond Stud Earring 
You can choose round or square. A good, substantial size is 1 1/2 carats (that’s 3/4 carat per ear, darlings). Bigger will just look fake even if it isn’t. And if you have to pinch pennies, look for a good moissanite or zirconia stud properly set in gold or platinum from a reputable seller.

A Gold Earring
Whether stud, knot, hoop or dangle, a go-to gold earring is always an essential. And remember, your ideal gold may not be gold at all, but a timeless platinum.

 

Rings

My mother always said a well-manicured set of nails is the best adornment for the hand. In my case, that means groomed and clean, with filed and buffed but mostly unpainted, shorter nails. However you choose to groom your nails, your fingers will appreciate the following three types of rings:

The Diamond Ring
A girl’s best friend is a Diamond Ring, whether bought by a fiance, a husband or wife, or as a gift to oneself. Personally, I prefer a fine solitaire to a lot of peripheral noise in the form of cheaper diamonds. However, a good, trillion-flanked three-stone ring is an acceptable substitution, as are diamond-surrounds a la the Princess Diana sapphire engagement ring or a Tiffany Soleste.

A Gold or Platinum Band
Preferably simple, without any accent stones, trim or filigree. It should be at least 3mm in width, of a traditional shape, without any odd curves or quirky bends, and should be as simple, classic and as understated as possible. I personally dislike band rings lined with small stones. They are rarely comfortable to wear and become dirty more quickly than is practical.

A Fine Cocktail Ring
Classified as a casual or personality piece, a good Cocktail Ring can be of fine gemstones or diamonds, but by all means does not err on the side of cheapness. If you find one that can be worn day or night, so much the better. A favorite ring of mine is a vintage diamond “snowflake” cluster ring from the 1960s which was a gift from a style mentor of mine.

 

At the Neck

Gold or platinum necklace in your signature metal. You can go chunky collar, or slender chain, with or without a pendant attached, but a good gold necklace will dress up even the simplest outfit with the right amount of sparkle at the throat.

A Good Pearl Strand
If you only want to buy one, pick an opera length that you can wear long, double looped as a shorter double strand, or even wrapped around your wrist.

A Signature Brooch
To draw attention to the neck, a signature brooch can be a timeless addition — if it feels fresh, modern and somehow personal to you. A good pendant can do double duty pinned to your breast as a brooch.

At The Wrist

A chunky gold cuff or chain or a set of bangles — either will add a solid band of metal and gleam at the wrist. A gold watch can substitute for the classic gold bracelet in the right setting. More on watches below.

Two Back-Up Bracelets
One casual and one formal. Whether you choose a diamond tennis bracelet, a double strand of pearls, the art deco enamel of a Frey Wille cuff or the salty simplicity of a Lemon and Line Sailor’s Knot rope bracelet — this is an area where there is a lot of room for self-expression.

The New Classic Timepiece
I will admit to a solid two years of my life during which I coveted the Cartier Ballon Bleu medium gold watch, with its $30,000+ price tag. But if I were to spend $30,000 on a single item, it wouldn’t be a watch but a really stunning ring, which I can leave to my granddaughter without worrying that it will stop working. So today, more often than not, I wear my Tiffany and Harry W. rings with a solid Timex watch and I wear it proudly. Perhaps if Cartier ever comes out with an Indiglo TM version of the Ballon Bleu, I will reconsider.

 

Alternative Adornments

When I was eighteen and living in Paris, my favorite and only piece of jewelry was a vintage tiara I'd bought at the Marché aux Puces at Clignancourt. I wore it tucked into my bedhead mop of lavender hair for an entire summer. Flash forward a few decades, and,  aside from the Met Gala, I'd be hard-pressed to find an event I could wear a tiara to now. They are best left to the Under-21 set. I will occasionally tuck a fine brooch or bejeweled clip into a chignon with a few bobby pins as an homage to the younger, naughtier me. After the age of 72, I fully expect to dip back into the purple hair dye and tiara drawer, and you should too.

For now, I find other ways to take a walk on the wild side. Though pierced noses seem terribly passé on genetically-pale Western girls these days, I will allow them as the only acceptable non-earlobe piercing allowed in a timeless jewelry wardrobe. Note that if you do pierce the nose, gemstones are an absolute no-no: only a diamond or noble metal will do to adorn it. An emerald is positively forbidden, for obvious reasons. And if you must have a belly button adornment, then I will allow a single, humanely-sourced ruby, popped whole into your navel like a spoonful of jelly.

Personally, rather than delving into odd piercings, I will occasionally opt for a bicep cuff or a toe ring —but only if it suits the style and general class of my outfit as a whole. I do keep a Cartier Sapphire ring in a tiny size 4 which has been known to grace my middle toe on hot summer nights. I bought it second hand, which makes it slightly less decadent, I think.

 

Where to Shop

Speaking of secondhand, I will always choose a high-value piece from a reputable fine jewelry reseller over an item from a mall jewelry store or your average local merchant. For unique personality pieces, Etsy plays host to some inspired newer jewelers. And never forget the most precious source of second-hand jewelry — pieces inherited from cherished friends and family. These often fall under the category of Personality Pieces, such as a vintage prep school or college ring handed down by your grandmother or dad which can be worn as a ring or as a pendant on a long silken strand.

My hard and fast rule for new and second-hand jewelry: My heart will always belong to Tiffany, Cartier and Harry Winston. But even with the Big Three it is well advised to avoid purchasing mass market favorites which quickly become unwearable by virtue of their ubiquity (remember that Return to Tiffany pendant or the Trinity de Cartier tri-color bands?). Note that this rule does not apply to signature watches, as I will never begrudge my husband his father’s treasured Rolex President.

Pearls of Wisdom

Straying from the Big Three is sometimes necessary for specialty gems or pieces. For Pearls, there’s always Mikimoto or Assael. Paspaley is a very high-end Australian brand that has mastered the ‘5 Virtues’ of pearl selection: Lustre, complexion, shape, colour, and size.

If you can’t afford the whitest of white pearls in a size that suits you (8mm-9mm is my personal sweet spot), rather than compromising on a dull, creamy strand, I suggest picking a color that suits your wardrobe. I have a gorgeous 24” strand of baby blues that go with almost everything I typically wear before 6 pm from January to October.

Fine Gemstones

For interesting indie or newer jewels that will stand the test of time, Temple St. Clair and Marie-Helene de Taillac are my favorites for a gorgeous gemstone piece. I also love Assael for some high end drama worthy of the Belle Epoque, and BVLGARI for something both modern and timeless.

A woman’s jewelry wardrobe is as unique as her fingerprint. And so it should be.