In a week or so Etiquetteer will be embarking on a good old-fashioned transatlantic crossing aboard the Cunarder Queen Mary II. Rummaging about in the family jewels for some Perfectly Proper Adornment led Etiquetteer to reflect on the Jewelry a Gentleman May Wear.
Let’s start with evening clothes. It’s almost useless to talk about what to wear with white tie, since the only gentlemen left wearing it are orchestra conductors, magicians, and summer stock companies of My Fair Lady. But what Etiquetteer was interested to learn from early editions of Emily Post is that a gentleman’s jewels were to be as inconspicuous as possible. So for white tie - which Mrs. Post refers to as “full evening dress” - a gentleman’s studs would be pearls* and his cufflinks involve mother-of-pearl, platinum, or white gold. Like good housekeeping, good jewels for white tie are what you don’t see.
A gentleman has freer range when wearing black tie - a tuxedo, once known properly only as a “dinner jacket” - but Mrs. Post was perhaps reluctant to stray far beyond a black-and-white palette. She specifies mother-of-pearl, platinum, and onyx. She also specifies “and all to match,” leaving Etiquetteer with a bit of a problem if you look at the photo above. Dear Father left behind a set of evening studs - what appears to be abalone or gray mother-of-pearl - thinly thinly edged with diamond chips - but not the matching cufflinks. Dare Etiquetteer add those enormous mother-of-pearl cufflinks to them, even though they don’t match and also belonged not to Dear Father but to Dear Mother?
Everywhere the emphasis is on conservative good taste. A gentleman’s jewelry is not flashy, is not complicated, is not heavily ornamented. Etiquetteer rather thinks that this is a bit of a reaction to some of the excesses of the 19th century, when gentlemen wore enormous rings as well as watchchains that dripped with fobs. Twentieth-century tastes became more streamlined and severe, especially for gentlemen. “Jewelry,” say the editors of 1953’s Esquire Etiquette, “if not plain, heavy and absolutely functional - is dangerous. The safest pieces are the least conspicuous ones . . . A ring is just about the only pretty that a man can wear without looking pretty-pretty himself . . . “ The idea being that a gentleman’s jewels proclaim their value not by their ornamentation, but by their materials.
In that same vein, gemstones for gentlemen are best if they are not faceted, but cut en cabochon. For those of us who missed French class that day, that basically means “in convex form without facets.” And a gentleman does not wear large stones, and a gentleman DOES NOT wear diamonds. Mrs. Post declared “In your jewelry let diamonds be conspicuous by their absence. Nothing is more vulgar than a display of them on a man’s shirt front, or on his fingers.” Walter Hoving of Tiffany & Co. famously refused to sell diamond rings for men. Could all this have been a cultural aversion to Known Vulgarians like “Diamond Jim” Brady?
Amy Vanderbilt, to Etiquetteer’s astonishment, contradicts this prohibition in her 1963 Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. Clearly a fan of heirlooms and a critic of the cheap, she surprisingly notes “In the West and Southwest many men, Eastern educated or not, wear a hefty diamond ring or stickpin perhaps as a status symbol. It is far from frowned upon because of its sartorial splendor.” But that might only be a Regional Affectation, and it might only work for Old Family Pieces. Later she advises “If any ill-advised woman should try to give a man a platinum chain with tiny diamonds between the links, he should return it to the jeweler who was talked into making it and go to Palm Beach on the proceeds or put them on the nearest fast horse.”
*Aficionados of Sunset Boulevard will immediately hear Norma Desmond saying to Joe Gillis “I want you to have a pearl, a big luscious pearl!” Now we know why.