Male Jewelry “Tomfoolery”


Photos of men wearing "tom" - pieces of jewelry.

Photos of men wearing “tom” – pieces of jewelry.

A really marvelous article by Beatrice Behlen recently appeared in London’s The Telegraph newspaper.

Its subject: tomfoolery.

As it turns out, “tomfoolery” is the name Cockneys give to male jewelry and Beatrice Behlen is the curator of a new show on the subject at the Museum of London. (The term is absolutely new to me in its reference to men’s jewelry.)

Behlen admits she’s had some difficulty in pinpointing “rules” governing male jewelry, but she identifies a few and they’re fascinating.

Note gold earring in this famous portrait

Note gold earring in this famous portrait

Functionality appears to predominant. Behlen quotes Cecil B. Hartley’s advice to gentlemen in 1860 to never wear jewels for “mere ornament” but to let their jewelry “have some use” and, says Behlen, “functionality, real or pretended, seems to dominate male jewelry.” (Cecil B. Hartley was the author of A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette” published in 1875. “A Gentleman’s Guide” was published by the Gutenberg Project and is free on Amazon and other websites, if you want a peek.)

Behlen gives it as her opinion that this may be the reason why male earrings have not caught on in a big, mainstream way since the sixteenth century when Sir Walter Raleigh wore a double-pearl earring.  She notes the gold earring in the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare and a couple of other notable earrings but concludes that “Sadly, the 17th century was the last time the male earring would be accepted in polite society for several hundred years…”

In the 18th century, the watch chain was born as men had difficulty carrying watches in skin-tight pantaloons. Cravats demanded pins; ties demanded clips, slides and ties.

Charles I at 15 years wearing pearl earring.

Charles I at 15 years wearing pearl earring.

Signet rings could still be put to their original use, she notes.

In 1952, Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette disallowed male earrings, but allowed antique seal rings. It rejected rings with stones, class and fraternity rings with the admonition that the “decoration….was just plain theatrical and affected.”

More than a decade later, the Duke of Bedford advised readers of his Book of Snobs to choose jewelry “with the utmost care and caution.” Bedford rejected tie clips, watch chains and large cuff links, allowing only god watches and a “signet ring on the little finger of the left hand.”

Tomfoolery is a photography exhibit of men who “clearly discarded the advice of etiquette books,” says Behlen. The photographs are mostly by Ross Trevail of men who wear some of the “tom” every day.

Finally, her charming article on the show ends with this: “Whether you choose to follow the rulebook or not, Vanderbilt’s suggestion for the unfortunate recipient of a platinum watch chain ‘with tiny diamonds between the links’ still stands: ‘He should return it to the jeweller who was talked into making it and go to Palm Beach on the proceeds or put them on the nearest fast horse.’”

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