A brief history of horny jewellery
From blood vials to thorned engagement rings, we chart the evolution of accessories embodying love, sex and desire.
Photo by SGranitz/WireImage and Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Machine Gun Kelly's UN/DN LAQR
An ancient Chinese myth posits that soulmates exist, and are joined together by an invisible length of red cord, looped with care around each of their little fingers by the lunar matchmaker deity. Despite time, distance and circumstance, these two souls, linked by the Red Thread of Fate, are destined to meet and fall in love. And while the thread may wear thin over the years, stretch over great distances or tangle around life’s vicissitudes, it may never break.
Centuries later and cultures apart, German jeweller Otto Künzli cast this sentiment in stainless steel. Featuring two bands joined by a solid metal rod, his 1980 design Ring for Two People represented a more contemporary, complex (and, perhaps, pessimistic) take on love, speaking to closeness as much as distance or, in the worst case, entrapment.
Four decades after Ring for Two People, the internet's favourite love-to-hate couple Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly stepped out on the red carpet rocking a modern, horny twist on Künzli’s conceptual couple’s jewel. In lieu of steel bands, the duo wore matching manicures, pinky fingers linked by a length of PDA-facilitating chain that symbolised the pair’s soulmate connection while also alluding to bondage gear.
Within the realm of couple’s jewellery, the ring has reigned supreme for millennia. There’s the entire engagement ring industry, of course. But there’s also the promise ring, the Irish claddagh and the posy ring, to name a few. It’s easy to see why the trappings of love have been, primarily, bound to the hands: they connect us to others and, through them, we convey our deepest affections. There’s the hand that caresses, reaches, entwines and strokes. The palm that cups the lover’s face; the thumb that brushes away a stray eyelash or tear; the forefinger that twists around a lock of hair. After all, the ring finger is the only appendage named after its given accessory.
Beyond the ring, in its many iterations, there’s an entire spectrum of jewellery that symbolises love, connection, devotion and possession. Think of the locket, which, in the 18th century, was made to be filled with a lock of a lover’s hair. Into the 20th century, with the invention of photography, the locket evolved to hold images. During World War I, soldiers would gift their loved ones with one of these necklaces, fitted with a photograph of themselves: a memento of their love while overseas.
Traditionally cast in precious metals and stone, jewellery possesses the qualities we hope for in our relationships and love affairs. In a word, it endures. In the 15th century, the diamond ring became the de facto emblem of conjugal faithfulness for its resistance to fire and steel. An embodiment of “til death do us part”. Or, as the now-legendary advertising slogan by De Beers put it: “A Diamond Is Forever.”
Jewellery also possesses a certain lustre. It sparkles, it captivates, it enthrals. In its beauty, we see a reflection of our romantic partner. Perhaps it’s this subtle connection that spurs the desire to adorn them. In 1811, Napoleon gifted his second wife, Marie Louise, a 263 carat (!) diamond necklace. In one of Pretty Woman’s most memorable scenes, Richard Gere strings 23 heart-shaped rubies around Julia Roberts’ neck; from the corner of the frame, we see him gaze at her reflection in the mirror.
Megan and MGK’s chain manicure is just one of a few ways the couple has eternalised their love with jewellery. Earlier this month, the musician proposed with a Stephen Webster-designed ‘toi et moi’ ring — a traditional two-stone jewel (in this case, using their birthstones) symbolising the union of two partners, or, in the words of MGK, “two halves of the same soul”. The most interesting design element, however, he went on to detail in an interview with Vogue: “The bands are actually thorns. So if she tries to take it off, it hurts. Love is pain!” Indeed.
For AW21, Belgian jeweller Stéphanie D’heygere brought her own deconstructivist tendencies to this age-old style, updating it for 21st century romance. Fitted with two removable stud earrings, her modular ‘toi et moi’ ring is more than just a symbol of connection, it’s a liveable, shareable piece, meant to be worn between lovers.
This type of jewellery, the jewellery of attachment, is rife for reinvention. A few years ago, Maison Margiela reimagined the locket ring. In place of a photo slot, its hidden compartment contained a bracelet with a gold heart pendant: a gift. One that conjured both e.e. cummings and Blair Waldorf (romantics, both of them) and suggested that “two souls, one grail” might be the new “two bodies, one soul”.
But where do we draw the line between jewellery of connection and its darker counterpart: jewellery of possession? In 2001, tabloids claimed that OG cringe couple Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton wore vials of each other’s blood. A decade later, however, the actor clarified that the adornments weren’t as nefarious (read: vampiric) as the media had made them out to be: “Angie came home one day with a kit she bought. You know those lockets you buy that are clear and you put a picture of your grannie in it or something like that and wear it around your neck? That's what it was […] She thought it would be interesting and romantic if we took a little razorblade and sliced our fingers, smeared a little blood on these lockets and you wear it around your neck just like you wear your son or daughter's baby hair in one. Same thing.”
Back in 1969, jeweller Aldo Cipullo created Cartier’s Love Bracelet after a bad break-up. Fitted with a locking mechanism, the iconic cuff — Cartier’s all-time best-seller — is locked onto the wearer’s wrist and can only be removed with a specialised screwdriver. At the time of its release, the bangles were marketed to couples and in Cartier boutiques, the Love Bracelet could only be purchased as a gift, with one partner relinquishing the proverbial key to the other. “I wanted something no one could take away from me. I was searching for a permanent symbol of love,” Cipullo said of the design, today sold under the slogan: How far would you go for love? In 2003, Austrian designer Helmut Lang sent a handcuff bracelet down the runway. Modelled after the real thing, Lang’s version read as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Cartier’s original “modern love handcuff”.
Some jewellery is made to to eternalise a love affair — or a lover. Man Ray’s Les Amoureux necklace features a pair of lips modelled after those of his paramour, Lee Miller. According to the artist, the design was meant to be worn off-centre so that the lips sit on the neck, as if giving a kiss. Similarly intimate for the time, in the Middle Ages, lovers gifted each other posy rings, their inner bands inscribed with secret messages or poetry — the proximity of the words to the skin believed to enhance their sentiment. Into the 21st century, the romance of the posy ring lives on in other forms. Remember when Carrie gifted Mr. Big a vintage Rolex, its inner face engraved: “Me and You. Just Us Two”?
Of course, for all the tradition and romance surrounding love jewellery, some of it really is just plain horny. For AW19, Y/Project creative director Glenn Martens collaborated with the aforementioned D’heygere on a series of rather risqué designs. Sculpted from plexiglass, the label’s Kama Sutra series depicted partners in a myriad of sex acts, pulled from the iconic tome. On the season’s PFW catwalk, a pair of sculpted lovers scissored around one model’s neck, while a man performed cunnilingus at the base of another’s wrist. Martens’ mantra for the season? “We do what we want. And we really want to have fun, and we don't really give that much of a shit about anything else.” And when it comes to jewellery, surely those are words to live by.