The question of ratings success of BBC Three’s Normal People is one thing – record breaking numbers for the show on iPlayer, doubling Killing Eve’s previous record – but the question of who, or what, is the breakout star is quite another.
As nuanced and subtle as the performances by the show’s two leads (Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell) are, the internet has decided that the real star of the show is a necklace.
The simple chain necklace, worn by Mescal’s Connell has been called “the sexiest thing” about the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel by The Cut. Meanwhile, an Instagram account Connells Chain, which posts pictures of Mescal wearing the item, has gained over 25,000 followers including model Adwoa Aboah. And the show’s costume designer tells the Guardian that Mescal’s wearing of the silver chain is “comparable to what James Dean did for the simple white T-shirt in the 1950s”.
In the week the show’s 12 episodes were released on BBC iPlayer, searches for “men’s neck chains” increased by 68%, according to jewellerybox.co.uk, while the words “silver” and “chain necklace” became the most commonly used search terms for men’s jewellery online, according to Lyst.
So what makes it the most eroticised inanimate screen object since Chris Evans’ jumper in Knives Out? “The chain holds a different kind of appeal,” says Billie Bhatia, curator of the Instagram account. “It’s innately strong and masculine but brings a sensual softness to Connell.” She adds that the iconic items of men’s jewellery on screen (think Leonardo DiCaprio’s cross in Romeo + Juliet, Jake Gyllenhaal’s dog tags in Jarhead, Heath Ledger’s silver link chain in 10 Things I Hate About You and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name) are “noticeable but not overwhelming, subtle but distinct”.
To capture what Rooney called “Argos chic” costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan says she didn’t spend much money. “We had a selection of classic silver chains and Paul chose his favourite. He must have sensed its magic powers.” She wanted to build on the idea, from the novel, that it was something he has had since school. “So it had to be simple and fine enough that he could have worn it under a school shirt,” she says. “Silver jewellery appeals to young people more than gold. Anything too heavy may have had different connotations, like gangster, or image conscious, which was not the character. It has a quiet elegant presence, like Connell. Not flashy, just classic.”
As good as the necklace might be, Bhatia admits that a healthy dose of lockdown lust has exacerbated its viral appeal. “The chain would have been popular in its own merit, but quarantine has certainly exacerbated people’s frustration and they have taken some of that out on the chain.”
The appearance of adornments like necklaces on the “top half” have become important parts of statement dressing in Zoom calls. “A man who slides into view wearing jewellery is reminding you that he hasn’t given up, that there’s more to him than isolated homeworker killing time between dishwasher loads,” says fashion writer Justin Myers. “It speaks not just to professionalism but pride.”
Normal People has bolstered a trend in men’s jewellery that has been bubbling under in fashion for a while. In December, American GQ declared that “gold chains were the new neck ties”, with celebrities like Justin Theroux and Ryan Gosling adopting the look. Meanwhile, Harry Styles, Kieran Culkin and A$AP Rocky have normalised the wearing of pearl earrings and baroque rings. On the catwalk, menswear shows from Dior, Gucci and McQueen have seen more focus on jewellery adornments too.
“There is certainly consumer demand for more male jewellery options,” says Chana Baram, Senior Retail Analyst at Mintel. “Tiffany launched its first male collection in October 2019, Bulgari introduced a new unisex range of studded rings in February and Astrid & Miyu released a unisex collection in January 2019.”
Still, men have been wearing jewellery through history, from the ancient Greeks to the Mughal Maharajas and the Tudor era. “Jewellery from the earliest centuries has never been just about personal adornment,” explains James Sherwood author of Jewelry For Gentlemen. “It is about portable property. When regimes and monarchies fall, your jewels can easily be swallowed or spirited away concealed in garments. Wearing money – real or imitation – on one’s body was of course an imposition of power not taste, hence Henry VIII wearing a ruby knuckleduster on every finger of every hand rather than, say, a royal signet ring.”
Sherwood adds that the way men wear jewellery now is more democratic. “Jewellery is no longer just for kings, emperors and princes,” he says. “It is for any man with swagger and style.”
Rosh Mahtani, founder and designer of jewellery label Alighieri, says: “Anthropologically, jewellery, and its rich symbolic nature, is a completely universal language.” It spans centuries, from pirates to hunters in Masai tribes, wearing talismen around their necks, she explains. “I think it’s part of a wider conversation around men feeling more able to express themselves without judgment.”