One of the most glamorous front rows during this autumn's Paris Fashion Week was not at a fashion show at all. The presentation of the new Messika jewellery collection, Beyond the Light, saw Gigi Hadid taking her place between Emily Ratajkowski and Carla Bruni.
If she seemed underdressed in cargo pants and vest top, the enormous diamond rivière around Hadid's neck and the equally impressive 18-carat brilliant oval sparkling in the middle of her belly chain more than made up for it.
This piquant high-low vibe was echoed in the location – a disused industrial building near the Place Vendôme, the traditional home of high jewellery. ('I thought it would be fantastic to showcase the most expensive collection I've ever done in a place that's a bit rough,' the house's founder, Valérie Messika, explained.)
On the catwalk itself, supermodels including Taylor Hill and Cindy Bruna strode out in Adidas track pants, shorts and swimwear, paired with dazzling Egyptian-inspired bijouterie, including mouth and body jewellery worth a pharaoh's ransom.
Alton Mason, a male model and dancer, walked bare-chested along the runway with malachite, gold and diamonds twinkling around his neck, and at his ears, arms and waist. Naomi Campbell closed the show wearing simple black, illuminated by the pièce de résistance, the Akh-Ba-Ka necklace featuring 2,550 diamonds adding up to 71.49 carats.
Meanwhile, at Chanel's autumn/winter 2022 couture show, held in an equestrian centre in the Bois de Boulogne, diamond necklaces from the maison's high jewellery collection glittered softly on top of tweed jackets, looking like embellished collars, while brooches were fastened at the waist or on to hats.
'Very early on, I wanted to add pieces of high jewellery on to certain silhouettes,' says Virginie Viard, Chanel creative director. 'The necklaces are from the latest "1932" collection, inspired by the Bijoux de Diamants created by Gabrielle Chanel. We also find comets and celestial elements in the embroidery, as well as nods to that era, such as these long dresses from the 1930s, given a twist with very sleek heeled cowboy boots that recall the equestrian world.'
Fendi debuted its first high jewellery collection in the same season and in a similar manner: the show's opening look was a slouchy tan suit, under which cascaded a waterfall of white and yellow diamonds.
A break from tradition
While it may seem perfectly logical to show high fashion and high jewellery together on the same catwalk, tradition has kept them apart: partly because the clients are not necessarily the same, and also because it's deemed a prerequisite to see jewellery close-up and in a reverential, rather than raucous, atmosphere. (Seven-figure masterpieces of the jeweller's art are also a good deal safer, of course, locked inside a glass display case than slung around a model's neck.)
As a result, where fashion shows often require audiences to trek out to an airport hangar or disused warehouse in the edgy boondocks, jewellery is shown in more intimate and plusher surroundings, unveiled to clients at lavish parties and dinners, culminating in private viewings where the choice pieces are snapped up, often never to be seen publicly again. Luxurious, certainly; cool, not so much.
But all this is changing. 'I don't really know why fashion and jewellery have been kept so separate,' says Messika. 'People think jewellery has to be on a stand, but that's very cold, very distant, and you can't project yourself into what it would look like on you. People love to see the way high jewellery looks when it's sitting on different skin and paired with different outfits.
'Fashion was a big inspiration to me when I launched my jewellery line 17 years ago. I wanted to democratise diamonds and make them cooler and more accessible, so having a fashion show really connected with this vibe.' Of her decision to show her priceless collection alongside Adidas sportswear, Messika says, 'It was a dangerous choice, but it was to make the point that high jewellery can be casual, cool, wearable.'
A complementary approach was taken by Victoire de Castellane, iconoclastic creative director of Dior jewellery, when presenting her latest collection, Dior Print. Inspired as it was by fabric, with tie-dye, Liberty prints, florals and stripes playfully rendered in precious stones, it made perfect sense to match the gems with clothes. At the presentation in Sicily this summer, the pieces were shown on models wearing couture specially designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Dior womenswear, to accompany the jewels.
'Victoire explains the high jewellery collection to me and shows me her designs and pieces. I consider the shapes that will best support the pieces being presented. I choose the appropriate colours, too,' says Chiuri. In this case, given the vibrancy of the collection, she opted for largely monochrome simplicity. 'The combination of couture clothes and high jewellery can create a powerful image. Like in all things, it is simply a matter of balance,' she adds.
'Our rule is that there are no rules'
At the storied Roman jewellery house Bulgari, by contrast, it is the creative director, Lucia Silvestri, who decides on the fashion that should accompany her spectacular creations. This June, at the Italian Embassy in Paris, the brand presented its Bulgari Eden: The Garden of Wonders collection. The models wore plain beige gowns so as not to distract from the glittering emerald, diamond and sapphire glories around their necks.
As we're chatting on a Zoom call, I can't help noticing, however, that this pared-back approach is very different from the way the glamorous Silvestri chooses to wear jewels herself. It's mid-morning in the office and she's in a scarlet jacket, with three rows of pearls and a gold-coin chain round her neck.
'For myself, I like to play with jewels and collections, mixing different styles,' she agrees. 'High jewellery shouldn't be too formal, too old-style. Most of the time, I don't have any rules – I love to wear a fabulous necklace with jeans. We sold a beautiful diamond and emerald necklace in Paris to a client, and she immediately put it on over a white T-shirt and jeans, and wore it out.'
'Our rule is that there are no rules,' say the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. 'When a piece of jewellery tells a story, it speaks for itself... A one-of-a-kind jewel can be worn with an evening gown as well as with a white T-shirt: it's the princess's dream in blue denim pants.'
So what's the best way to carry off high jewellery with elegance? 'It's not so much a matter of styling, but of attitude, of poise,' say Dolce and Gabbana. 'We like to think of the great movie divas who, with extreme ease, wore wonderful and priceless parures as if it were the most natural thing in the world.'
Several of the experts I spoke to cited Queen Elizabeth II as an inspiration. 'She could cover herself in gems and still look great, because she was never trying to be anything other than what she was, which was the Queen,' says the jewellery historian Andrew Prince.
'She wore the most incredible colours and millions of pounds' worth of jewellery, and yet it never looked in bad taste,' agrees Cathy Kasterine, contributing fashion editor to Harper's Bazaar. 'It was part of her uniform somehow, it enhanced her and it just made you feel proud of her. It's no mean feat, carrying off that level of diamonds and pearls without them wearing you – though I think the Princess of Wales is going to be good, because she's started young enough.'
With her ceremonial jewels acting as literal symbols of power, it is not surprising that Queen Elizabeth II became equally adept in using her personal jewellery symbolically, although protocol demanded she kept her opinions to herself. Her brooches, worn on the left shoulder, became the priceless equivalent of a student's button badges.
They were often used in diplomacy, such as the glittering diamond maple leaf she wore to meet the newly appointed Governor General of Canada in 2021; and occasionally appeared to be social commentary, like the green floral brooch given to her by Barack and Michelle Obama that she then wore when President Trump arrived in the UK for a state visit.
At the Queen's funeral, a more subdued splendour was on display from the female members of the Royal family, who by and large opted for understated black attire with a standout jewel.
The Queen Consort wore the Hesse Diamond Jubilee brooch, which had belonged to Queen Victoria, on her own left shoulder, while the Princess of Wales donned one of the Queen's favourite pearl necklaces (pearls, of course, being traditional mourning attire, since they are said to resemble tears).
Princess Charlotte, seven, was dressed in a similar manner, her outfit adorned with a diamond horseshoe brooch, given to her by her great-grandmother and a nod to their shared passion for horses.
By comparison, the Duchess of Sussex was understated in a pretty pair of pearl earrings given to her by the Queen. No longer a working member of the Royal family, she was not loaned a significant piece to wear, and it acted as a visible marker of her diminished status.
Perhaps it was to emphasise her own quasi-regal position that the late Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, also chose to contrast pared-back chic clothing with the flamboyant jewellery given to her by her infatuated spouse.
The modern approach
However these days, especially for those whose jewellery is merely beautiful rather than globally significant or laden with symbolism, a more laissez-faire approach is called for.
'If you're going to wear a hugely valuable piece and you're not in the world of politics or royalty, it looks much better and sexier worn in a more casual way,' says Kasterine. 'It's really old-fashioned to have the hair, the make-up, the gown and the jewels – one element has to be more relaxed. The jewellery should look a bit effortless. I have a Victorian diamond brooch I love, and I wear it pinned on to an army jacket.'
'I think it has to feel like you're painting,' says the editor, stylist and creative director Leith Clark, who is responsible for Keira Knightley's red-carpet looks. 'If you were painting a portrait, what would you add to make it something magical? Jewellery has that power.'
Meanwhile the rules of etiquette that reserved tiaras for married women (hence their popularity with brides), and insisted diamonds were infra dig during the daytime, and that it was vulgar to mix white and yellow gold, now seem as antiquated as insisting on saying 'looking-glass' rather than 'mirror'.
'The high jewellery clients are younger, and there are more men wearing jewellery, so anything goes nowadays,' says de Castellane. 'What interests me particularly is the way men are reclaiming jewellery. I find it very inspiring to see rappers, for instance, wearing traditional codes of jewellery like pearls and making them their own by contrasting the precious with streetwear.'
'I went to a film screening last weekend, and there was Timothée Chalamet in a blue shirt and jumper, wearing the most incredible diamond necklace on top,' says Kasterine. 'I was obsessed – the contrast of the jumper and diamonds just looked so good.'
The modern approach to important gems is to wear them in an unexpected way. That might be as simple as sporting only one of a pair of earrings, draping a necklace over your back – a favourite A-lister ploy on the red carpet – clasping a bracelet around the ankle, or pinning a cluster of brooches in your hair.
Multiple ear piercings are another opportunity to wear serious jewellery without ostentation. 'When the New York jeweller Maria Tash started designing diamond cartilage earrings, it sparked a huge trend that has resulted in the likes of Chanel and Dior creating ear cuffs and crawlers as part of their high jewellery collections,' points out Avril Mair, luxury fashion director for Hearst UK.
'You only need to see house ambassador Kristen Stewart wearing Chanel on the red carpet to see how cool it's become. These pieces are often available as single earrings, or paired with a solitaire in the opposite ear.'
'I've just come from a fitting with Joanna Scanlan,' says the stylist Penelope Meredith. 'I took her an extraordinary Solange Azagury-Partridge necklace, which she'll wear with one matching earring, and just a pearl on the other side, so it's less reverential.'
'Have fun with jewellery, don't just put it where people expect it,' is Andrew Prince's tip. 'If you have an insect brooch, ask yourself where the insect would land – put it on top of your shoulder rather than on your lapel. A brooch worn on your hip or at the base of the back looks sensational. It's wonderful to walk out of the room looking as fantastic as you did when you came in.'
Just how far attitudes have changed in recent years can be demonstrated by the 1950s society scandal when the Maharani of Baroda, Sita Devi, encountered the Duchess of Windsor at a ball, wearing a splendid emerald and diamond necklace. 'The jewels looked better on my feet,' Sita Devi remarked; the stones had been taken from a pair of anklets she had sold to Harry Winston. The mortified Duchess immediately returned the necklace to the jeweller.
Nowadays, one has no doubt, she would have been wearing anklets herself.
Lydia Slater is editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar