All things bright and beautiful: Contemporary fashion jewellery has never been so diverse or dramatic

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From bird-shaped mirror necklaces to Middle Eastern masks...

Whether we like it or not, jewellery finds its way into most of our lives. It might be a brooch passed down through the generations of a family. Or it could be a friendship bracelet, engagement ring or wedding band. Right now, however, it's more likely to be forcing its way into our consciousness via the catwalk, music videos and glossy magazines, where extravagant, unexpected and just plain beautiful pieces threaten to upstage the clothes they accessorise.

On the runways it began in earnest a few seasons ago, when labels such as Lanvin, Marni and Yves Saint Laurent adorned models' lithe frames with super-sized necklaces, swingy chandelier earrings, stacks of bangles and giant cocktail rings. In the fashion lexicon, there are few items that cannot be prefixed with the word "statement" and so, after handbags and shoes, came the turn of statement jewellery. Fast forward to spring 2010 and it still has plenty to say for itself, with weighty bejewelled necklaces ruling at Dries Van Noten, Roland Mouret and Lanvin once more.

But if it is difficult to make a statement with a £1,000 bag other than "I have more money than sense", the possibilities for self-expression offered by contemporary fashion jewellery, to both designer and wearer, are a lot more exciting.

"Jewellery is a really heady combination of craftsmanship, artistry, history and symbolism in a way that I don't think clothes and other accessories necessarily are," agrees Maia Adams, a fashion writer and lecturer at St Martins.

In her book Fashion Jewellery, launched earlier this month during Paris Fashion Week at the city's über-chic emporium Colette, Adams brings together a selection of the world's most exciting contemporary designers in the field, many of whom are behind the creations we see on the runways of ' major fashion houses. Despite confessing to being a long-standing jewellery obsessive herself, Adams considers the present moment a high point in the medium's long history. "I don't think it's the world's first jewellery moment – back in the 1930s you had Chanel and Schiaparelli making costume jewellery really desirable for the first time, then Paco Rabanne making 'anti-jewellery' with plastic and wood in the 1960s – but there is definitely something interesting happening.

"All through the 1990s there was a period of minimalism, but since then, brands have cottoned on to the idea of extending themselves through these pieces that will last a long time and are relatively inexpensive. So we started to see these amazing pieces on the catwalk at Lanvin and Marni, and it has cast a spotlight on the jewellers themselves, who aren't necessarily working solely for the luxury brands."

What emerges through the pictures in Adams's book is that if jewellery per se is currently a trend, it's by no means a homogeneous mass. On the contrary, if anything can be said to unite the jewellers featured, it is the diversity of their inspiration, material and aesthetic. Their ideas might come from nature, 19th-century memento mori, Pop Art or the Marquis de Sade; the final pieces could be realised in anything from telephone cables and magnets to more traditional pearls and gold.

Australia's Michelle Jank, for instance, makes large-scale pieces that Adams describes as "garment transformers", and it is true that her necklaces featuring enormous bird-shaped mirrors would turn the plainest of outfits into something special. Jank notes that when she wears these pieces, "They send bird reflections bouncing down the streets in the sunlight and I see people smile as I walk past."

Closer to home, east London's Scott Wilson blurs the boundaries between jewellery and millinery. A long-time collaborator of avant-garde fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, Wilson is the man behind arresting catwalk pieces from mirror and glass visors to cascading bead veils and Middle Eastern masks. Off the catwalk, he is equally capable of producing wearable pieces that mix Art Deco with 1970s disco and are guaranteed, in the words of Liberty creative consultant Yasmin Sewell, to "up the cool factor of any outfit".

"One of the questions I asked all the designers was, 'Are you influenced by trends?' and not a single one said yes," explains Adams. "There is, of course, an element of fashion and seasonality, but it does exist in a vacuum to a certain extent. That's why you can pick up a vintage piece from the 1920s or the 1960s, pretty much any period, and it would be easy to integrate into your outfit today."

So, are people investing in these contemporary pieces as heirlooms of the future? "I don't think people ever invested in diamond rings and pearl necklaces simply because they were obviously valuable; it's more that those particular pieces are loaded with centuries of symbolism. It's still early to say with fashion jewellery, but [Belgian designer] Natalia Brilli told me that some people buy her pieces simply as beautiful objects, and I have a sense that's what a growing number of people do now. It's more akin to art in that sense, to sculpture in particular, since you don't need to wear it to appreciate its beauty. You might just keep it on a dressing-table or shelf."

'Fashion Jewellery: Catwalk and Couture' by Maia Adams is published by Laurence King, priced £24.95

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