Let’s talk about jewelry! And not just any jewelry- today we are talking about gold and diamonds, rubies and platinum, sapphires and silver! I want to talk about fine jewelry- all the glittering genuine gems and finest metals and materials one could imagine. Fine jewelry is defined as any jewelry made from a precious metal- gold, silver, and platinum come to mind initially. And so technically, quite a bit of body jewelry falls under the umbrella of fine jewelry. But similar materials and stones are where the similarities stop. Fine Jewelry and Body Jewelry are very very different from each other, often in ways folks don’t realize at first. I often encounter clients who have lots of knowledge and experience in fine jewelry who end up very confused when they encounter body jewelry and all its very different needs and priorities. So today let’s chat about the difference! This article topic was inspired by Bridgette who is an APP member at large, and most recently can be found guesting around the east coast.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the difference in fine jewelry and body jewelry is that they have entirely different priorities. They might use similar materials and gems, and might be made by similarly skilled hands, but the end goal is entirely different. Flour and eggs might turn into a cake, but it also might turn into pasta. Similar ingredients, entirely different end goals.
In fine jewelry the focus is often wholly on the artistry of the piece. Fine jewelry pieces want to showcase gorgeous stones, intricate settings, and gorgeous designs. Practicality and often even function can play second fiddle to the art of the piece. And with fine jewelry you have that freedom! A ring can be bulky and unwieldy, a necklace may have rough spots, a bracelet may have a difficult closure mechanism. None of those things are disqualifying factors, and many of them are only minor inconveniences when it comes to fine jewelry.
Body jewelry however, even made of gold and diamonds, still has to be worn inside the body. Meaning the first and most important priority of body jewelry is always its ability to be worn inside the body safely. Artistry, gems, design. Those things all take a back seat to the need for function. Is this comfortable? Is it safe? Can it be inserted and removed easily? With body jewelry its quite literally going inside you. And for many clients its going to stay there for weeks or months or years. It’s not a showpiece brooch you’ll remove at the end of the night. You need to live in this piece- sleep with it, eat with it, shower with it on. And it needs to be safe and functional during all of those activities. That reason alone sets body jewelry apart from fine jewelry in purpose and function.
Perhaps the best example of different priorities in jewelry is polish or surface finish. This is how smooth and perfect the surface of a piece is. In body jewelry, a mirror finish is what’s common. This means there’s no microscopic imperfections on the piece that could harbor bacteria, debris, or anything else that could harm your piercing. Polish is one of the most important steps when it comes to having safe, quality jewelry. And polish is important on fine jewelry pieces too- but not to the level it is for body jewelry.
Ask a fine jeweler to spend 20-30 hours hand polishing every single surface of a necklace under magnification- each link and weld and prong and they will ask you why? It has a beautiful polish as it- and who is going to look at this piece under magnification? And they would be right! On a necklace its not crucial that every single piece have an absolutely perfect mirror finish. A polish that’s smooth to the touch and bright to the eye is perfect. But a necklace also isn’t going into an open wound. But with body jewelry, polish becomes imperative.
No better place is this seen than with stamps. Stamps are as they sound, a stamp hammered into a piece that denotes the metal. 14k, 18k, etc. If you examine your fine jewelry closest you’ll find stamps on the posts of earrings, hidden inside the bands of rings, and on the back of pendants. That are a way for makers to mark the material used. And they quite literally cut this stamp into the metal. On earrings, one of the most common places to find this stamp is right on the post that goes into your ear. In fact I used to own a pair of Tiffany earrings with a stamp right on the post. And that means dead skin cells, debris, and bacteria can collect in that stamp!
When I talk to piercers and body jewelers about stamps they recoil. “Horrible for you, they trap so much debris and dirt.” “I’ve had stamped posts cut my clients ears, because the edge on the stamping is so sharp.” “It just doesn’t make sense. We know you want a mirror finish for (body) jewelry, and we know its safer and healthier. Why stamp the part that goes inside the body?” But fine jewelers have a different view “theres no better place to hide it, it doesn’t take away from the design there.” “Sure I’ve had one or two women come back saying the stamp hurt or scratched them. But it’s not a big deal, it’s very rare that this happens, and I just polish it off. I wouldn’t stamp somewhere else because it would run my designs.” The priority on fine jewelry is clearly with the artistry and the look of the piece. And for fine jewelry, that works! But for body jewelry, comfort and function have to be the priority. A clients health and safety is always more important than the style or look of a piece.
Function vs Fashion
The function of a piece is obviously important in both fine jewelry and body jewelry, there’s no argument from me there. That being said, function plays a different role when it comes to body jewelry. Function for us is not just the physical ability of a piece to be worn, it’s also its comfort while worn, its ability to be taken in and out, and its function in day to day living. Body jewelry rarely is removed- folks eat, sleep, shower, dress, dance, play sports, and live every moment of their lives with body jewelry in their piercings. It’s not a ring to be removed to wash your hair or a necklace you take off before swimming. Many folks have their pieces in 27/7, 365.
And body jewelry is designed with that in mind! It’s designed to be secure yet low profile, comfortable, it comes in a huge ranges of sizes for every body type and shape, its settings are modified not for beauty but for function. And this is where fine jewelry often misses the mark.
I had a client once who had a family diamond she wanted to wear as a nose ring, so she had a family friend set and make a piece and had me put it in. Immediately- it was incredibly difficult to put in and remove. It was a corkscrew style but the screw was massive. I suggested a labret style piece for comfort, and she took it back to the jeweler. When she came back- the inside piece was what screwed on! Inside her nose! I mentioned there was the risk if it came unscrewed of her inhaling it, and also it would always be very hard to take on and off. She brought it back to the jeweler. Finally it came back to me and the front was threaded! We installed it, two days later she wanted it out- one of the prongs was too tall and caught on her pillow case. Back to the jeweler it went, and then back to me. This time she wore it for a few weeks, but the open settings collected foundation and it looked dull and ugly quickly, and the post was feeling scratchy and uncomfortable. Finally, she invited the family jeweler to the studio so he and I could talk.
I showed him the pieces we worked with, the polish and finish. The small, close settings, the extra polishing they got. The uniquely cut prongs to minimize snagging. The small, precisely measured posts and perfectly polished backings. He was shocked! He had no idea body jewelry was made with such precision and finish. He admitted, I can’t make things like this. I’ve never needed to polish something perfect down to a microscopic level, I’ve never needed to set a single tiny gem with such precision. I’ve never had to consider what a piece would do when you washed your face, or put makeup on it, or wore a helmet or any of these things. He admitted this was entirely foreign to him as a master fine jeweler. Ultimately, she had her diamond sent off to one of our companies where a fine body jeweler made it into a perfect nose ring. It didn’t snag, it was secure, and it stayed beautiful day in and day out.
Education Makes the Difference
Many amazing body jewelers have backgrounds in body piercing and modification or work with those who do. Just as many amazing fine jewelers have a background in stones and metal working or work with those who do. But these different educational backgrounds lend themselves to entirely different approaches about making and creating things. Fine jewelers often don’t see things from the lens a body piercer does, they aren’t thinking about how a piece will rest in a headset or snag on someones hair in a shower or how much makeup might collect around a piece.
They look at their materials and see the absolute best way to make a stone shine or the perfect composition of color to make a piece look its best. They are creating artwork with their pieces, not burdened by the requirements of function and wear. And I think that’s amazing! I admire the fine art of jewelry making and own many pieces that I adore as rings and pendants and bracelets that I know would absolutely never function as body jewelry. When I took my classes at the GIA I cringed at the polish of some of the finest pieces of jewelry in the world under magnification. And then I reminded myself there’s no need for a ring or a pendant to be as polished or as functional as a piece of body jewelry. And that’s perfectly ok! They are each their own unique subset of jewelry creating, just like watch making it is’ own unique trade often under an umbrella with jewelry or working alongside them. But if someone doesn’t have the education to approach a piece from the function it needs, fundamentally there already may be issues before a piece is even cast or started.
And as more and more fine jewelers decide to offer body jewelry, I see these issues more often. Folks who pay thousands of dollars for gold and diamond pieces made with some basic flaws we engineered out of body jewelry two decades ago. Pieces that are stunning to look at, and stunningly uncomfortable to actually wear. On the flip side I see folks familiar with fine jewelry balk at the cost of fine body jewelry- not understanding the unique skills and education and the hours upon hours of extra work that go into making a piece not only beautiful but safe to wear in the body.
I think fine jewelry and body jewelry are both unique, important elements of the jewelry world. And I think fine body jewelry stands apart as its own, independent art form of jewelry crafting. One that blends the artistry and craftsmanship of a fine jeweler and the science and functionality of body jewelry. One can not exist without the other in the realm of fine body jewelry. And the unique blend of skills, experience, artistry, and effort should not go unrecognized. For fine jewelers interested in making body jewelry I encourage you to work with piercers to understand the body and all the extra work that makes a piece function. And for fine jewelry enthusiasts interested in body jewelry, I encourage you to realize how different the pieces being made for your body art, and how much extra work the function requires alongside the form.