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The Guardian Angel
The Guardian Angel

Jewellery just got smarter

Forget smartwatches; the latest high-tech wearables come in the form of rings, bracelets and pendants. Emily Mobbs investigates the new ”smart jewellery” craze and what it could mean for the independent retailer.

On September 9, 2014, one of the most monumental events – if not the most monumental event – occurred in wearable technology history. After years of speculation, Apple finally previewed its version of the smartwatch, aptly named Apple Watch.

Criticism and praise for the device, which the company intends to release in early 2015, has arrived in equal measure yet while opinions are varied, one thing is certain: the launch has given the wearable technology sector a major profile boost…not that it really needed one. Recent shipping and sales figures already indicate that the popularity of wearables is growing in leaps and bounds.

According to research company International Data Corporation, global wearable technology shipment volumes are predicted to exceed 19 million units this year (more than triple the figure in 2013) while data from research service Statistica shows that the wearables market in 2014 is valued at about US$5 million (AU$5.7 m) and expected to increase to some US$12.6 million (AU$14.5 m) by 2018.

Amazingly, the appeal of wearables – generally categorised as accessories that incorporate electronic technologies that allow for functions like SMS alerts and sleep monitoring – has been limited largely to a group of tech-savvy males. That is, until now.

Introducing smart jewellery: a new wave of accessories designed to target society’s modern-day obsession with connectivity while still appealing to fashion-conscious females. These are devices that could easily pass for normal pieces of jewellery, save for the ability to provide such functions as incoming phone call alerts and health notifications.

What’s noteworthy about this group of wearables is that developers have gone to great lengths to put design front and centre as well as keeping cutting-edge technology at the core of the product – something many industry experts believe smartwatch manufacturers have failed to do.

Leah Heiss
Leah Heiss
Ringly
Ringly
Netatmo June
Netatmo June

“For June, our goal was to create a fine piece of jewellery that women would enjoy incorporating into their daily outfits,” says Raphaëlle Raymond, marketing vice president for Netatmo, the company that created the June bracelet. The device, which is available in three colours and can be worn on a leather or silicon wrap band, measures the wearer’s sun exposure before giving advice on sunburn prevention and premature ageing.

“We’ve seen an increase in the desire for wearable technology to look less like technology,” she adds. “We believe that fashion and design are essential to the success of the wearables market.”

With this in mind, the company enlisted the skills of French jeweller and designer Camille Toupet, who has previously worked with Harry Winston, Louis Vuitton and Chloé.

Another indication that aesthetics are increasingly being valued by technology businesses launching wearables is the collaboration between Fitbit – a company known for wristbands that measure fitness data, including number of steps walked and quality of sleep – and American fashion designer Tory Burch. The partnership has resulted in a collection of jewellery that includes silicone-printed bracelets as well as brass bracelets and pendants that can be paired with the Fitbit Flex health and fitness tracker.

Like Raymond, Fitbit ANZ and SE Asia marketing director Jaime Hardley says the fusion of fashion and technology is important to the widespread adoption of wearables.

“We believe users are looking for additional ways to wear their trackers to match their everyday style, mood and activities,” he says of the company’s decision to be more fashion-focused. “The Tory Burch brand is known globally for chic, iconic accessories and is on the leading edge of the integration between fashion and technology, making it the perfect partner for Fitbit.”

These sentiments are in line with findings from research company L2 Think Tank. Its 2014 Wearables report, produced in partnership with Intel, stated it was highly unlikely that a wearable technology or fashion company would conquer the wearables market alone: “Silicon Valley may be the cradle of innovation, but not style. Likewise, the arbiters of fashion who set trends on the runways of New York, Paris and Milan are not engineering powerhouses.”

For JWT Singapore, the developer of The Guardian Angel – a connected device that can be worn as a bracelet or necklace and allows the wearer to activate what the business’ website calls a “fake call” when feeling threatened – the term ”wearable” was taken in the most literal sense.

“We knew we had to make it wearable in that it had to look simple but stylish and timeless,” chief creative officer of JWT Singapore Valerie Cheng explains. “We believe that jewellery or accessories can also be an emotional purchase. Think Tiffany and Cartier – their designs and names all have a story to tell. They stand for something and so does The Guardian Angel. The design was inspired by this message and therefore is shaped like a halo.”

The Guardian Angel
The Guardian Angel
Fitbit and Tony Burch
Fitbit and Tony Burch
Leah Heiss
Leah Heiss

Cheng’s comments should hit a chord with most retailers. After all, it’s that emotional connection between consumer and jewellery piece that is critical to successful selling.

It’s also an aspect that plays a key role in the work of Melbourne-based designer Leah Heiss who describes her projects as being “at the intersection of art, science and advanced technologies”.

Heiss collaborates with experts from a variety of disciplines in order to create wearable devices that aim to remove the stigma surrounding therapeutic technologies – examples include a necklace or ring that replaces insulin syringes for diabetics and a bracelet that identifies allergies.

“My projects are intrinsically concerned with the emotional relationship between people and their personal technologies,” she says. “Few people like to look ill yet there have been few therapeutics that could pass as regular garments, jewellery or devices. My vision of the future is one in which we augment our loved and cherished possessions with ‘veneers’ of technology to keep us well and healthy.”

Technically challenged
According to Heiss, scale is one of the biggest challenges when developing wearables that place a heavy focus on aesthetics: “Scale is a key issue – miniaturising technologies so that they can be wearable, comfortable and also aesthetically pleasing. The primary motivation for designing things that look like jewellery, rather than device, is to create something that users might develop a strong emotional connection to; functionality becomes secondary.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Heiss isn’t the only one who has struggled with getting technology down to a wearable size. It’s an obstacle that has also been outlined by Christina Mercando, founder and CEO of smart ring manufacturer Ringly.

“Our biggest goal and challenge was getting the tech as small as possible in order to design something that is on par with popular jewellery design,” Mercando says of developing the ring, which connects to a phone and sends the wearer customised notifications and calendar alerts.

“We wanted Ringly to look like any other cute jewellery accessory and we wanted it to be something you’d wear even if it wasn’t packed with powerful technology,” she adds. “Thus, the miniaturisation was really important for us – we went through many iterations to get it as small as it is today.”

Those many iterations seemingly proved worthwhile with the ring’s design receiving a significant amount of media attention when it was first announced in June this year. The range is available in four different gemstones – black onyx, pink sapphire, rainbow moonstone and emerald – and set in 18-carat gold or rhodium-plated brass. A limited-edition tourmalated quartz version has also been released with Ringly’s website suggesting more styles, colours, metals and stones are planned for the future.

Fitbit and Tony Burch
Fitbit and Tony Burch
Netatmo June
Netatmo June
Leah Heiss
Leah Heiss

Raymond adds that the key to creating a wearable device with mass appeal is that neither design nor technology should take priority: “The first challenge is indeed to make no compromise between the original design idea and the technical constraints of a high-tech product: size, angles, finishes, material were all studied at length to respect the design and the function of June.”

Smart jewellery might still be in its infancy but there’s no denying that developers have their sights firmly set on taking a share of the jewellery market. “It’s tough to say exactly how it will play out over the next few years but I do see wearables like Ringly eventually being sold in jewellery stores and not just consumer electronics stores,” Mercando says.

“I predict that in the future, we’ll purchase wearable devices in the same way we buy clothes now – in department stores – and we’ll be buying multiple devices to match different outfits. As we see more designers collaborating with technology companies to create their own line of wearables, we’ll see a rise in wearable devices available at traditional brick-and-mortar stores.”

Whether Mercando’s comments will become a reality is anyone’s guess – it’s early days and difficult to determine if smart jewellery is simply fad or a category that will gain mainstream traction. As a steady stream of products enter the market in search of a new (retail) home, however, the question really becomes which outlet will be most appropriate?

The idea of buying smart jewellery in consumer electronics stores seems odd but the idea of buying it exclusively online carries the same limitations already felt by regular online jewellery, namely that it doesn’t allow customers to physically touch the piece before purchase.

Some have already denounced the category as not being right for independent jewellery stores but one has to wonder: wasn’t it just a few short years ago that almost everyone said no one would buy those small beads?











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