How your jewellery is secretly ageing you

·10 min read
Where once it was all about a single charm on a dainty chain, as seen on Jo Whiley, now it’s all about the #neckmess so ably demonstrated by Gwyneth Paltrow
Where once it was all about a single charm on a dainty chain, as seen on Jo Whiley, now it’s all about the #neckmess so ably demonstrated by Gwyneth Paltrow

It used to be the case that you could tell a woman’s age by her shoes. Now that everyone wears Veja trainers or Birkenstocks all the time, it’s not quite that simple. Jewellery, however, is another story. At a recent family wedding, my 60-year-old aunt wore a Vampire’s Wife mini dress, while floral tea dresses were worn by 30-somethings and septuagenarians alike. But what really set the generations apart was their jewellery. Gen Z cousins stacked every finger and thumb with silver, my millennial sisters and friends layered up their fine yellow-gold chains, and the 50-plus contingent wore ropes of pearls or chandelier earrings.

More than handbags or coats or shoes, jewellery can be a marker of maturity. As stylishly bejewelled women (who may well have a personal stylist to hand) know, simple swaps can take years off your look.

The Goop glow is not Gwyneth Paltrow’s only age-defying weapon. The 49-year-old has mastered the #neckmess: an artful arrangement of gold chains and necklaces that’s an elevated update on the gold pendants of a decade ago. Where once it was all about a single charm on a dainty chain – there’s barely a 40-something alive who didn’t covet Alex Monroe’s Bee Necklace – now the neck is a heaving mass of gold chains, beads, initials, zodiac signs and symbols, with the odd diamond necklace thrown in for good measure. Paltrow pairs her neckmess with everything from Grecian-inspired gowns to T-shirts and bikinis. A ubiquitous look amongst 20- and 30-somethings, the neckmess is also beloved by J-Lo, Sarah Jessica Parker and Eva Longoria. When 47-year-old Longoria wore a white suit at the Taormina Film Festival in June, she heaped her arms and neck with gold chains galore.

The thing is, jewellery is more than mere accessory. It carries huge sentimental value. Hence why we wear the jewels we were given day in, day out, whatever the outfit or occasion. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly possible to wear your favourites in a modern way just by mixing them with contemporary pieces. It needn’t cost the earth, either.

“When we started out 25 years ago, men were buying jewellery for women. Now, our clients buy for themselves as a conscious part of their outfit,” says Vanessa Chilton, one of the founders of Chelsea jeweller Robinson Pelham. She advocates layering a chunky gold necklace over a daintier sentimental pendant – such as an initial or star sign – and adding a longer chain. “I never leave the house without two or three necklaces.” On the wrists, clients work hard to curate bracelets, beads and bangles into a seemingly thrown-together wrist stack, like those on model Amber Valetta below, that brings the simplest outfit instantly up to date.

Layering is the cornerstone of the contemporary approach championed by British demi-fine jewellery brand Kirstie Le Marque, a favourite of Holly Willoughby. “Our ethos is that you can wear our pieces with your sentimental or antique jewellery,” says co-founder Kirstie Beecroft. “I wear several different pendants, along with a necklace that I never take off that holds half of my mother’s wedding ring.” She advises combining different textures and thicknesses, incorporating chunkier weights alongside barely-there chains, and advocates adding in beads and colour for summer, as well as mixing metals for a modern look. “I always advise people to start with their existing meaningful pieces, look at where they sit and the type of chain, and then fill in the gaps,” adds co-founder Claire Le Marquand. The duo recommend considering your body shape when choosing lengths. “I have bigger boobs [than Claire] so anything really dangly is a no-no,” says Beecroft. “I don’t go longer than 18-20 inches.” Longer chains suit tall, slender physiques – remember you can always ask a jeweller to alter a chain length.

To make their outfit feel more special, many women still reach for their statement earrings, a last-minute addition like a slick of red lipstick. This fuss-free approach, unfortunately, can be ageing, especially if the earrings in question are particularly dangly, or what we used to refer to as “jazzy”. On the red carpet, older celebrities know the power of sculptural styles, choosing ear-climbers that extend up the earlobe rather than dangle limply beneath it. Stylish midlifers also continue to be drawn to the multiple-piercing trend, expressing their creativity through the tricky art of the curated earlobe.

Charlize Theron’s curated earlobe - Steve Granitz/FilmMagic
Charlize Theron’s curated earlobe - Steve Granitz/FilmMagic

“An ear cuff gives you a natural facelift because it follows the line of your cheekbone and pulls your face upwards,” says Vanessa Chilton, whose pre-Covid “piercing parties” saw women from teenagers to 70-somethings emerge with lobes smattered with tiny colourful studs and charm-adorned huggie hoops. “It’s a far more youthful look than two great big hulking earrings.” Lots of small earrings sparkling away up the earlobe help bring light to the face, as the likes of Eva Chen, Phoebe Philo and Charlize Theron all know.

Modernising your jewellery box doesn’t mean abandoning your favourite gems. Pearls used to be associated with Princess Di-channelling Sloane Rangers. But there’s a world of new styles that still offer the same complexion-flattering lustre. “People have a preconception that pearls are for an older generation, but you can style them in a really contemporary way,” says Bibi Southwell, founder of ORA Pearls. “Recently I’ve seen a move towards misshapen baroque pearls rather than traditional round spheres – they look very cool strung on a gold chain or dangling on a hoop.” Amanda Peet chose baroque pearl hoops for the Critics Choice Awards in March; a pared-back take on evening glamour. Elsewhere, Caroline Issa mixes gold chains and pearls for an easy way to style your precious inherited strands.

Princess Diana’s pearl earrings in the 1980s vs Amanda Peet’s pearl hoops today
Princess Diana’s pearl earrings in the 1980s vs Amanda Peet’s pearl hoops today

For the wedding, my mum dusted off – literally – a silver bib necklace she’d owned since the 1980s and had it repolished so that it was every bit as fresh as the Gen Z-ers’ silver stacks. That’s the best thing about jewellery: buy well and it lasts forever. So when trends do come back around, you can enjoy revisiting the pieces that are lurking in your own jewellery box.

1960s: Bring on the bangles

Leather Leila cuff, approx. £143, So-Le Studio Essential bangle, £250, Monica Vinader
Leather Leila cuff, approx. £143, So-Le Studio Essential bangle, £250, Monica Vinader

Artistic designers revolutionised jewellery in the 1960s, bringing in new materials such as resin, clay and plastic. Colourful lucite bangles were an inexpensive, high-impact trend.

If you still love bangles: Create an individual wrist stack, mixing multiple cuffs and chunky chains with beaded bracelets. A snug fit is key: look for oval styles with hidden side fastenings. For evening, wear two large cuffs, one on each wrist: check out So-Le Studio, whose metallic cuffs are made from upcycled Italian leather.

1970s: Supersized hoops

Twisted tubular hoop earrings, £25, Whistles Hoops & huggies ear story, £680, Metier by Tomfoolery
Twisted tubular hoop earrings, £25, Whistles Hoops & huggies ear story, £680, Metier by Tomfoolery

Natural materials like wood, feathers and cord, together with lashings of turquoise and supersized hoop earrings, dominated the hippy jewellery scene.

If you still love hoops: Scale them down: the contemporary curated ear consists of multiple, mismatching earlobe-hugging hoops, studs and cuffs. If your budget can stretch to solid gold, you can swim, sleep and shower in them. Metier by Tomfoolery removes the effort with its pre-styled ear “stories”. If more piercings are out of the question, hoops strung with pearls are an update on the classic.

1980s: Pearls reign supreme

Baroque pearl hoop earrings, £220, ORA Pearls Seed pearl hoop earrings, £89, Lily & Roo
Baroque pearl hoop earrings, £220, ORA Pearls Seed pearl hoop earrings, £89, Lily & Roo

Princess Di-style strings of pearls and matching stud earrings were an essential part of every Sloane Ranger’s outfit.

If you still love pearls: Mix strands of pearls with gold chains, or embrace misshapen baroque pearls. At the luxury end of the spectrum, Japanese pearl house Tasaki specialises in minimalist yet avant-garde designs; for more affordable options, look to ORA Pearls, Olivia & Pearl or Lily & Roo.

1990s: Check out the chokers

Claw torque collar necklace, £245, Missoma Sabre Deco torque, £1,200, Shaun Leane
Claw torque collar necklace, £245, Missoma Sabre Deco torque, £1,200, Shaun Leane

The gothic trend saw every 1990s celebrity pair their slip dress with a black velvet choker. On the high street, plastic “tattoo” chokers were unavoidable.

If you still love chokers: Try a simple torque-style necklace that rests just above the clavicle: a chic take on a choker that works in whatever your preferred metal colour. Nineties style is back, so embrace the minimalism of this look by making it your only adornment.

2000s: Big bling and cocktail rings

Chunky domed ring, £29, Cos Crushed gold resin ring, £40, Jigsaw
Chunky domed ring, £29, Cos Crushed gold resin ring, £40, Jigsaw

Chunky domed ring, £29, Cos

Crushed gold resin ring, £40, Jigsaw

In the era of excess, bigger was better when it came to cocktail rings: noughties celebrities loved pairing huge round or rectangular gemstones with their jewel-toned gowns.

If you still love cocktail rings: Focus less on the size and sparkle of the stone and more on the ring’s silhouette: an interesting shape made up of small pavé-set stones, rough-cut gems or unadorned gold is more modern. Goossens offers 22ct-gold-plated sculptures for the fingers. Wearing more than one cocktail ring, like Cate Blanchett, is another easy update. Or wear your cocktail ring with jeans or khaki: an unexpected pairing that also means a more favourable cost-per-wear.

2010s: Demi-fine dainty pendants

Long link charm necklace, £85, Wilson Jewellery Diamond and quartz Wylde Moon heart necklace, £295, Kirstie Le Marque
Long link charm necklace, £85, Wilson Jewellery Diamond and quartz Wylde Moon heart necklace, £295, Kirstie Le Marque

With the advent of “demi-fine” jewellery and an explosion of affordable fine jewellery brands, women invested in dainty solid-gold pendants they would wear every day, everywhere.

If you still love dainty pendants: Now it’s all about the #neckmess; layering multiple chains of various thicknesses and lengths. Alighieri’s molten-gold necklaces are much admired, as are Kirstie Le Marque’s vintage-inspired pendants. Add strands of colourful beads or pearls to keep up with the kids. I love Wilson Jewellery’s affordable selection of charms on chains – the brand’s Instagram feed is a masterclass in the art of layering.

2020s: All about chunky chains

Gold-plated chunky chain necklace, £70, Kenneth Jay Lane (libertylondon.com) Silver-tone necklace, £295, Isabel Marant (net-a-porter.com)
Gold-plated chunky chain necklace, £70, Kenneth Jay Lane (libertylondon.com) Silver-tone necklace, £295, Isabel Marant (net-a-porter.com)

The XXL chain is a fashion editor’s favourite, paired with everything from t-shirts to tailoring. Tilly Sveaas  and Laura Lombardi (matchesfashion.com) are the names to know, while Kenneth Jay Lane’s chains (libertylondon.com) are under £100. Isabel Marant offers a silver-toned version for a break from ubiquitous yellow gold.