A Pain in the Neck?

Posted by in April's Magazine

The necktie is an outmoded symbol that has no practical use but it has a long pedigree. Kennedy Wilson gets knotted

Why do (most) newsreaders, politicians and undertakers wear neckties? Time was when a man was considered improperly dressed without a collar and tie. Broadcasters Evan Davis and Robert Peston took much criticism when they first appeared tieless on TV. Donald Trump with his long, dangling red tie has done nothing to improve the necktie’s reputation. The simple truth is that the tie is not just some redundant scrap of fabric that is meant to convey an undeserved respectability. 

“Even the most primitive societies knew the power of something adorning the neck and upper chest – two of the most vulnerable parts of the anatomy in a fight. Chinese and Roman military regiments used colour-co-ordinated neckpieces as a way of declaring their allegiance to their leaders. 



Chest armour, lucky amulets, the diadems of the ancient world all gave protection to the wearer. The more elaborate, the more status could be conveyed. Over the centuries neckwear evolved; the pussycat bow, hippy beads, the diamond brooch or string of pearls, Elizabethan ruff, the silk cravat, the boutonniere, the slogan teeshirt… the necktie. All perform the same function. Think of Theresa May’s statement necklaces of huge ping-pong marbles. They seem to say she means business and does not necessarily always want to look ladylike. 

Writes Raphael Schneider in the website Gentleman’s Gazette: ‘If we go back four thousand years to ancient Egypt, many Pharaohs had broad ties adorned with precious stones wrapped around their necks. Archaeologists have found what is believed to be a talisman known as the Knot of Isis around the necks of mummies. Even some Indios of certain tribes in the Amazon and Aborigines in Oceania wear very little clothing but neckwear. While it’s impossible to establish the specific time that modern man began to wrap knotted fabric around his neck, it is evident that neckwear has a tradition on a global scale and not just in the Americas and Europe’.

In the 17th century Croatian mercenaries’ neck scarves were taken up by French dandies, today even non-tie wearers are not immune. The average office worker with his/her swipe-card on a lanyard is sending a message about their allegiance and place in the world. This vestigial sign is as significant as any cartouched breastplate or flak jacket.

Perhaps this over-display of wealth, protection and status reached its apotheosis in the Indian subcontinent in the Mughal Empire of the 16th and 17th century. The empire was established in 1526 and was the world’s largest economic power. A new book, East Meets West: the Jewels of the Maharajas by Martin Chapman and Amin Jaffer delves into the dazzling art of the jewellery maker; men mostly wore these astonishing neckpieces.

In 1928 the Paris jeweller Cartier created a spectacular ceremonial diamond-and-platinum necklace for Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala garnished with smoky quartz, citrine and two synthetic rubies. This was the largest commission of its kind ever undertaken by Cartier. The centrepiece was the spectacular 234-carat DeBeers yellow diamond. Not for nothing was this known as a ‘bib necklace’. Such extravagance had a long tradition. Around the middle of the 19th century Sher Singh (Maharaja of the Sikh Empire and the Punjab) was painted in regal dress complete with sumptuous ceremonial jewels set with emeralds, rubies and pearls.

Before the development of the cultured-pearl technique, it required a true miracle of nature to find a row of pearls of identical size, shape, colour and lustre

Indian princes often wore multiple strands of pearls covering the entire chest. According to the book’s authors: ‘this fashion translated into royal jewellery in the West, the multiple rows of pearls characterising the apparel of Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, both Empresses of India. The ownership of rare jewels was an intrinsic aspect of kingship across cultures. Before the development of the cultured-pearl technique, it required a true miracle of nature to find a row of pearls of identical size, shape, colour and lustre’.

Rubies (and red spinels) were especially prized jewels and called the “king of precious stones” in ancient Sanskrit. The dramatic blood red colour was ‘reputed to protect the winner in battle and they were often used in precious, ceremonial weapons made for the Mughals. They were associated with vitality and wearing them was believed to enhance life force and stamina’, writes Martin Chapman. 

Meanwhile, emeralds were sacred and seen as the colour of Paradise. Some of these gems were imported through Goa while large uncut diamonds were exported to Europe and in the mid-17th century the French Court of Louis XIV acquired one of the world’s most famous stones, the Hope Diamond.

So, the next time you need to put on a tie (a funeral, a job interview) or when you forget your swipe-card and lanyard just think of the Hope Diamond.

Info: East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection by Martin Chapman and Amin Jaffer (£29.99) www.prestel.com

Twitter: @KenWilson84

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