Beauty and Brains. The Nerd Wears Prada. My “Smart Jewelry” Reconnaissance.
January 16, 2016 § 2 Comments
The first week of 2016 found me in Las Vegas, to attend CES, the giant annual Consumer Electronics Show, for the very first time. In the sea of gadgets large and small, I wandered in the area designated for “wearables”.
Wearables have not, before now, really grabbed me, in spite of my coverage of health technology for years, and enthusiasm for the category in the tech world and beyond. I tried out a Fitbit last year for a few days initially, then in a few more short stretches of heightened self-motivation, but have let it collect dust on my night stand ever since.
Just around New Year’s I learned of “smart jewelry,” and we featured two collections — Ringly and Tyia — in our Lifestyle gallery. They made me realize why I had stopped wearing the Fitbit – many times I had been embarrassed by the unsightly plastic on my wrist, compromising my outfit.
With no better plans for my last afternoon at CES (my presumed primary mission having proven a bust the day before), I decided to just take it easy and see if I could find anything else like Ringly and Tyia that may actually be, well, “wearable”. I’m glad I did – these last few hours made the whole trip worthwhile.
I now share with you my review and stories of five “smart jewelry” makers, including my picks from CES; as well as my thoughts about this new generation of “wearables”.
The first line of smart jewelry from New York-based Ringly is a collection of rings, designed with semi-precious and precious gemstones set in an 18 carat matte gold or gunmetal plated brass setting. At first glance they are simply chic-looking rings. What makes them different is discreetly embedded technology which connects with the phone, receiving subtle notifications of important messages that the wearer does not want to miss, yet without forcing the user to hold the phone all the time and be sucked into its many distractions. Through the Ringly app, different types of notifications can be set with custom color and vibration patterns.
Like Ringly, “Tyia”, from Viawear, sends subtle notifications of only important messages from people who matter the most, allowing the wearer to put the phone away and relax; but the function comes in the form of an elegant bracelet. Tyia is offered in silver, 18K yellow or rose gold, and oxidized “gunmetal”. The genuine leather straps are interchangeable, with many different colors and materials. Fused to the back of the semi-precious quartz gemstone is a layer of genuine mother of pearl to diffuse the light, making the gemstone glow.
Viawear has its genesis in a loving family story. Tyia, the namesake of the collection, is a busy therapist balancing professional and home life like many working mothers. One day she silenced her smartphone, only to later learn she had missed several calls and texts telling her that her 5-year-old had broken his arm. This was of course a painful experience. Tyia’s husband, Ben Isaacson, a digital marketing executive, set out to create a bracelet that could alert her to urgent messages, knowing at the same time that it would have to be equally as beautiful as it is functional for Tyia to wear it every day.
Besides notifications, Tyia bracelets also track daily activities – they have a 6-axis accelerometer and gyroscope used to measure steps, with additional activity tracking features to be released in the future.
Having been primed on the technological functionalities by the time I got to CES, I tuned my sensor first and foremost to the look and feel when I scanned the “wearables” booths – the products on display had to pass the aesthetics test before I go up and learn more about their functions.
The first booth that caught my eye was that of Misfit. I met their “Ray” and “Shine” collections of fitness and sleep monitors one can wear around the wrist, around the neck, or in Shine’s case, tucked or clasping anywhere in the clothing. Ray comes in classy Carbon Black or Rose Gold; while the Shine trackers lined up together look like a box of fun and bite-inviting French macarons. Both are made of aircraft-grade anodized aluminum.
The Notification function is similar, with Vibration Alerts for alarms, calls, texts, and movement reminders; and like most health trackers they measure Steps, Calories Burned, Distance, Activity Types, Sleep Quality, and Sleep Duration. Ray lets the wearer tag specific activities in-app, for Running, Walking, Swimming, Cycling, Yoga, Basketball, Tennis, Soccer, and Dancing. As a swimmer I find their water-resistance (up to 50M) a rather appealing feature; and the idea of wearing a Ray pendant to an Argentine tango milonga is jazzing me to get back on the dance floor soon (where I certainly wouldn’t have worn a Fitbit).
Swarovski Activity Crystal
My first reaction seeing the Swanflower booth was surprise: what is a 120-year old traditional jewelry company doing at a technology gadget show? And what is the whole thing about “Getting Fit”? My question was quickly answered by the name of the collection on display – Swarovski Activity Tracking Jewelry; and further elucidated when I noticed in smaller font down below – “Propelled by (guess what?) Misfit”!
As can be expected by now, the “Tracking” here is standard, measuring physical activities and food intake; except Swarovski offers it in its iconic crystal, set against the Swarovski Slake bracelet or sport band. When touched, lights indicate both the time and status of activity accomplished, giving body conscious women “a discreet way to accelerate their fitness and wellbeing”. Swarovski emphasizes the versatility of the collection – that it can complement all styles and looks, for dressing up or down. From the sport band for a morning workout, to a Slake bracelet for work, the smart collection can transition from day to night, “matching every outfit and occasion”.
What intrigued me the most in this case was the business partnership, between a legacy fashion brand with global reach, and an innovative startup with leading edge technology, validating a trend I had instinctively expected to see for some time.
The Swarovski Activity Tracking Jewelry Collection does have one unique technical feature in store which I find very exciting: that the crystal will be solar-powered. Misfit’s technology already touts its “no charging” feature – that it is powered by 393 button cells with battery life of up to 6 months. As an environmentalist I would feel conflicted between the convenience of no charging and the potential environmental impact of disposable batteries. The impact might be small in this case, however if solar power can be used, it sounds like the best of both worlds! Most impressively, the energy-harvesting technology is developed in-house by Swarovski’s R&D team, a bold move championed by VP of Marketing, Joan Ng, leveraging the unique light-capturing properties of crystals, a material that the company sure knows well.
The last smart jewelry maker I visited, just before the show floor closed for the day, turned out to be where I lingered the longest.
Wisewear’s “Socialite” smart bracelets have the look of high fashion, more regal than the rest. The company’s patented antenna system can transmit bluetooth signals through metal, allowing brass to be the core material, plated in a choice of 18-carat gold or palladium. Besides the standard tracking and mobile alerts, the luxury bangles have a unique safety feature: when the front is tapped in a customized touch pattern, the wearer’s location and a text message are automatically sent to a pre-loaded list of emergency contacts, sending out distress signals and calling for help.
A company representative demonstrated to me the easy snapping on and off between the two parts of each bracelet: the bottom or “brain” half, as she called it, housing the smart technology; and the top, “beauty” half, which is just for looks and interchangeable among the various designs (currently on offer are the Calder, the Kingston, and the Duchess).
Wisewear’s story of fashion “marrying” innovation is even more poignant, with personal charisma. Like Viawear, the venture was born out of a loved one’s emergency needs not answered in time. Five years ago, Jerry Wilmink lost his grandfather to a severe fall, which could have been non-fatal had a family member been promptly alerted. The young scientist, with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, set out to “right the wrongs” by helping other seniors avoid the same fate. His original plan of a smart hearing aid did not materialize, but in the process he invented the ground-breaking metal-penetrating Bluetooth antenna system. Then, a chance encounter with designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel led to Wisewear’s union of smart sensing technology with sleek, beautiful metal jewelry.
Misfit has a design fiction promo video showing a midnight romance between two 30 (or 20?)-somethings during a poolside party; another girl driving in a convertible; and somehow the man and the two girls all end up meeting in the kitchen for coffee the next morning. It is a little too cool, clever and confusing for my middle-aged brain. In comparison, I find Wisewear’s simple catalogue with Iris Apfel’s hearty, playful smile comforting and uplifting. What brand ambassador for health and style than a 94-year old fashion legend, still beaming, learning and actively creating, with better taste than most one third of her age and certainly explosive amount of wisdom (see below my favorites of her chic and salty quotes)!
Although inspired by protection of seniors, Wisewear’s distress messaging feature is certainly useful for young women, too. Stylewise, the design could work across ages, although more on the formal, mature side and more New York than California. At CES Wisewear also introduced a Titan Collection with a belt buckle, indicating the company’s intention to develop products for men as well.
The first generation of “wearables” showed off technology. The second generation conceals it – “subtle” or “discreet” are mentioned in nearly all of these makers’ marketing materials. The smartphone inundated us with endless alerts, apps and messages which, while undeniably benefiting us, also drive us to addiction, dysfunction and isolation. Smart jewelry aims to reduce, filter and prioritize, bringing our attention back to the present moment and physical human connection. I’m not yet fully convinced that adding another device is the solution, but if it happens to be a work of art, it is worth having in its own right. The wearables category was initially dominated by males, and foregrounded with masculinity and machines. Nothing wrong with that – “naked” technology maybe a necessary first step, so that attention can be focused on the functionality; and Fitbit and the likes have paved the road for market adoption of the technology. However, without style the word “wearable” is only half accurate, and thanks to humans’ natural desire for beauty the category can now begin to live up to its moniker.
The charming Dr. Jerry Wilmink joked that his Wisewear venture is like “Devil Wears Prada” meets the nerd. Iris Apfel said it more elegantly: “If a technology is going to strive to save my life, then at least take the next step to make me look good while doing it… Novelty can compete with tomorrow, but to create something classic is timeless innovation”.
When function becomes standard, the form becomes a differentiation. And who is to say that form is only superficial? When men only carried pocket watches, the first wristwatches were made for women, as a piece of jewelry. But WWI saw watches going on men’s wrists, as pilots needed something more accessible than reaching into a pocket while they were flying. The form supported the function in a way more than critical. With today’s “wearables”, we may be witnessing a replay of these historical patterns, with the form and the function alternating in importance, but together challenging each other to something better.
As to me, besides making a nice story of art and science, “smart jewelry” is a fun metaphor for one of the great joys of being a woman, when we can cultivate both beauty and brains, both style and substance. All the better if we can be rewarded by a long, healthy, creative, exuberant, expressive, daring and successful life like that of Mrs. Iris Apfel.
“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”
“I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage.”
“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess.”
“There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self-expression and above all, attitude.”
– Iris Apfel