At Terra Adorn, we're all about strengthening bonds with our sisters—brothers too. But what could a community brought together by jewelry and crafting possibly have to do with those bonds?
It turns out, a lot, actually—in many countries, jewelry has historically also been worn (and continues to be worn) by men.
The Ancient Egyptians had jewelry for women and men. Jewelry was made out of materials like gold and silver, and could be adorned with semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli and carnelian. For the Egyptians, jewelry served as mystic protection, status symbols, and adornments. Perhaps the most iconic pieces of Egyptian jewelry worn by all genders were the heavily adorned collars and pectorals, as depicted on many Egyptian paintings and sculptures.
Bandi - Liberia
The Bandi were another group with jewelry for women and men. Both men and women wore silver pendant necklaces, or mboloi hulei, crafted out of the Bandi’s famous silver. These pendants could be shaped like tusks, horns, boxes, hearts, or squares. The latter were often inscribed with Arabic writing, such as Koran verses. Men and women also wore bracelets that could be made out of animal parts, including elephant feet.
Batak Toba – Indonesia
For the Batak Toba, men and women also wore jewelry. Jewelry that they both wore included bracelets made of ivory. Men specifically wore large rings that could be made of materials such as bronze or copper alloy. These rings were decorated with abstract or zoomorphic designs, like fighting roosters and the mythological singa, an animal comprised of features from lions, elephants, and naga dragons. Besides being decorative, Male Batak Toba jewelry had symbolic meaning; they served as talismans or to bring abundance, fertility, or protection to the wearer.
Bikolano – Philippines
Bikolanos also had jewelry for all genders such as anklets, armbands and bracelets. They were crafted with a multitude of items like seashells, rattan, ivory, brass, tortoise shells, and semi-precious stones. Chains made of gold (usually made of links) were a multi-gendered adornment as well.
Even Aztec men, a group long-associated with their fierce military prowess, wore jewelry. Warriors and nobles wore items such as labrets and earpools made out of materials like obsidian, gold, jade, and shells. Jewelry also functioned as highly-regarded gifts to be exchanged with leaders at state ceremonies.
Around the world, lip plugs and plates are mostly worn by women. However, in some South American cultures, like the Abipon, who used to inhabit what is now known as Argentina, men wore them. Abipon men’s lip plugs were wooden and coated in silver or bronze.
Differences in Men’s and Women’s Jewelry
Although the previously explored cultures had jewelry for both men and women, that it is not to say these cultures are free of gendered practices. In regards to jewelry, there are often gendered differences in how the pieces looked, were worn, and were named. For example, Bandi women could wear rings or a specific women’s chain belt on their skirts. Furthermore, kani fulei, or shield-like armlets, were only worn by the wives of Bandi chiefs. Going back to the Philippines, Bikolanos had different types of earrings known as palbád for women, and tarúna for men.
Men & Jewelry Production
Men haven’t just worn jewelry, they’ve produced it too. Bandi men, who were blacksmiths, crafted copper and iron anklets. As with other crafting cultures, these blacksmiths often worked as silversmiths who made jewelry because of the similar techniques and tools used in both crafts.
The Zapotecs and the Pueblo Indian Zuni tribe are two other groups where men produce jewelry. Interestingly enough, in the past century, the Zuni’s traditionally male realm of jewelry making has expanded to include female craftsmen. The fact that a craft that was once traditionally dominated by one gender can transform to include others lends support to the idea that changing gendered ideas of who can create and wear jewelry is possible.
Western Men & Jewelry
So, some men in other countries have historically worn and made jewelry, and shifts to include other genders in jewelry making have occured; that doesn’t mean it’s ever been or should be acceptable for Western men to wear jewelry. In the West (outside from males in “weird” subcultures), jewelry is clearly a woman’s sphere.
However, although it seems like Western men wearing jewelry has never been acceptable on a wide scale, plenty of Western cultures have had men’s jewelry. Powerful Roman leaders wore rings and brooches that served to demonstrate their high social rank. Even strong Celt male warriors wore brooches, bracelets, and gold or bronze neck rings known as torcs.
With all these examples of men wearing and producing jewelry, how did the idea of it become unacceptable in the West?
The process of coming to see men and jewelry as something wrong starts at a young age through what Cahill (1989) calls “fashioning a gendered society”. Simply by dressing male and female children differently, guardians are often the first figures who teach that not only are there boys and girls, but there are also “correct” ways for each gender to act. Other social forces such as peer pressure or children’s media, like books and tv, further reinforce this implicit message by mirroring the rigidly-gendered look that guardians teach.
As we grow older, the pressure to fit into these taught models of gender mounts, and we often abandon any practices that do not “fit” the label. Unfortunately, wearing jewelry does not fit with the current Western conceptualization of what it means to be a man. For Westerners, being a man often encompasses a lack of interest in fashionable expression beyond drab suits and watches. In order to strengthen this limiting conceptualization, we undergo cultural amnesia and ignore evidence of alternative forms of masculinity from other parts of the world. We even ignore that our own masculine ideals such as wealth, power and strength can be represented through seemingly unmanly practices like wearing jewelry. As time goes on, purposeful ignorance transforms into a culture where we do not even bother to look for and imagine other conceptions of masculinity besides our own.
As a result, Western men lose the empowering freedom to express themselves through the colorful world of clothing, jewelry, and other adornments.
To see how unfounded this limitation is, just look at the matter of labeling. Call decorative dog tags or rapper chains a “necklace” and suddenly the jewelry becomes feminized and discarded in shame. But why? The material doesn’t change, only the name does. Recall that many blacksmiths like those in Bandi also made jewelry. “Blacksmith” conjures up images of a respectable, masculine profession. Replace “blacksmith” with “jewelry-maker”, and images of women crafting unskilled pieces as an absurd hobby surface. Why should men have to limit their expression solely because of a name and its association with so-called weak femininity? As previously explored in our Mother’s Day blog, women who craft and wear jewelry are powerful in a multitude of ways.
The science of biology and genes is also used as evidence to repute any social arguments (such as the above social act of labeling) and strengthens the idea that men wearing jewelry is a crime against nature. According to this mode of thinking, there are built-in differences between women and men. Therefore, gendered social practices such as banning men from jewelry are justified. However, according to the scientific method (the rigorous research process scientists follow), in order for findings to be credible, they must be reliable or stay the same in repeated tests.
If jewelry truly was built into women’s biology and not men’s, why hasn’t the rule against men wearing jewelry held up when tested against other parts of the world? It hasn’t applied reliably to the West either; testing the West’s past shows multiple cultures where it was widely acceptable for men to adorn themselves.
The Men’s Jewelry Taboo: Is it Set in Stone?
The acceptability of men wearing jewelry in multiple cultures (including some in the West), the ability for a traditionally male-dominated jewelry-making profession to slowly incorporate another gender (women), and how easily the men and jewelry taboo slip away by a mere change in labels, demonstrates that changing gender-related rules against adornments is neither wrong nor impossible to achieve. If thinking that men shouldn’t wear jewelry is something that is taught and is not an unchanging fact of life, it can be untaught.
Fortunately, there has been some progress to change this social taboo. Contemporary male Western celebrities like Harry Styles are proudly wearing their bejeweled adornments every time they step on stage. Because of their large, public platforms, these stars can make a huge difference.
Of course, more men who wear and craft jewelry besides famous figures are needed for true progress to happen. There are many men around the world who are bravely and proudly doing just that, like our Balinese artisan, Ketut Kersa. But these artisans will also need people like you to showcase their work and spread their powerful message to others. Be sure to check out Ketut Kersa’s stunning, gender norm-defying work in our newly launched Bali Adorn Him Collection. It’s sure to make a statement—both political and fashionable—when worn by any gender, including men.
Author: Jazzy Celindro, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer