Jewellery seems to have stolen a march on fashion: in this year of the gold medal, with a tough, dark drama edging its way into autumn fashion, military-style jewels – bristling with coins and medallions or jangling with jewels redolent of orders and decorations – are already shaping up into a strong new look.

In Paris last year, jeweller Edeenne showed her storytelling jewels in the Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur against a backdrop of medals, insignia, and orders of chivalry.

In New York, Judith Price, president of the National Jewelry Institute, discovered the decorative possibilities of old-world decorations while writing her latest book, Lest We Forget: Masterpieces of Patriotic Jewelry and Military Decoration.

In a flea market in Turkey, she found three impressive enamelled stars which she had made into a necklace, there and then, for a cost of $75. “People love tradition; this is a new way of looking to the past, twisting it round and making it part of our lives.”

Her research also uncovered links to contemporary jewellery, such as the charm bracelet, so popular in the first world war when it was hung with “sweetheart” mementoes, given by a soldier to his girl, and the modern wristwatch, notably the classic Cartier Tank watch.

Bulgari's jewel-as-medal brooch design
Bulgari's jewel-as-medal brooch design

Louis Cartier was inspired by the top of a tank deployed on the Western Front, and presented the first model to General John Pershing in 1917.

Ms Price feels interest in medals will grow in the next few years, but adds: “While it’s completely taboo – even illegal – to wear honours such as the Victoria Cross, the American Medal of Honor or the OBE, that are not your own, it’s acceptable to wear antique jewelled orders, from another country, such as Turkey.”

Safer still is to wear a new military style jewel, a “faux” medal, or a medallion perhaps in silver on a ribbon from Arthus-Bertrand, the great French goldsmith and maker of medals and orders.

Or for a more bejewelled look, choose a piece from Garrard’s Star and Garter collection, designed by Stephen Webster, creative director of Garrard, to honour the company’s heritage as jewellers to royalty and makers of badges, decorations and regalia.

The jaunty, gem-set collection plays with motifs such as stars and fleurs de lys, capturing their richness and grandeur, giving them a modern edge, linking three different stars with chains on a ring that covers three fingers, or coaxing a stylised star into a drop hoop earring, mixing pomp and punk.

Bulgari bracelet
Bulgari's Monete bracelet

Like the medal, the coin honours heroism and valour, and Bulgari has not only revamped its famous coin jewellery of the 1960s and 1970s with its new Monete collection, but also tapped into the jewel as medal with two dramatic one-of-a-kind creations, made in its Rome workshops.

One is set with a silver coin on streams of diamonds and coloured gems, replicating a military style ribbon, the other with a gold two-headed Habsburg eagle, also on a ribbonlike gem-set brooch.

Continuing the ancient tradition of setting coins into jewellery and linking Bulgari to its cultural roots, the new Monete jewels mix coins with rose gold, and interlinked circles of mother of pearl and diamond, set into sautoirs, necklaces and bracelets, or hung singly and simply on a long gold chain.

Nicola Bulgari says these signature jewels give the coin, a relic of the past, the chance of a “second life. Instead of leaving it closed in a drawer, we transform it into a living thing”.

Dominique Biard, the Parisian artist-jeweller and photographer, contemporises both coin and medal jewels.

She sets ancient silver coins, from 500BC, which she found in Selinonte, an early Greek town in Sicily, into high-tech contemporary jewels of materials such as titanium or carbon-fibre.

Her collection of “Rubans Décorations” is made from old ribbons from medals, decorations and orders, hung with small rectangular prints of her photographs between sheets of plastic, each chosen to complement the colours and meaning of the ribbon – a photo of a red poppy hung on a ribbon from a Resistance medal, for instance, or a black and white photo hung on the orange Moroccan Ouissam Alaouit ribbon. She calls it “softening” the image of the medal, underlining its storytelling aspect.

Julia Muggenburg’s designs for her brand, Belmacz, have always had more than a whiff of the heroic about them, strong, and warrior-like, with a barbaric highly emotionally-charged beauty. For her, coins are some of the fascinating fragments of the past that she has always collected and upcycled into her jewels. Coins, she says, also have an important tribal association, used to ornament women in all cultures and societies.

“There is a beauty to them, like suns and moons.” She sources a mixture of coins of all ages, currencies and origins, preferring them odd, misshapen and heavily patinated, and carefully frames them in gold to hang like charms on gold bracelets, chains or pins, their solid gravitas contrasted with light little gold rings and tiny beads.

The “epic” quality of coins, links them, she feels, to medals and to the military fashion influence. But then she knows that jewels are always worn, like talismans, or armour, to overcome the enemy, get you through the day or a party. “Jewels are like emotional ammunition.”

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