Wearable jewelry makes its big, boring debut while we all await the real innovation

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 17, 2014

From The News Desk

If headlines are any indication, the time for wearable jewelry is now.

Wearable makers have finally discovered that women exist. In the last few months there’s been a multiplicity of companies appearing to target the finer tastes of the female gender with “smart jewelry.” Rings, bracelets, and necklaces galore that are fashion first and technology second, rather than the typical geeky alternative. Hell, we've seen everything but smart earrings, and I’m sure those are just a matter of time (I pity the poor soul who takes that as a challenge).

Andreessen-Horowitz backed Ringly had perhaps one of the most high profile launches last week, garnering loads of headlines with its splashy pre-sale announcement. In the video a model pranced around waving off her ring while a narrator intoned, “With Ringly you can live freely while staying connected to the things that matter most.” You know, like your Tinder notifications telling you that cute guy you swiped right on wants to chat.

Although Ringly was widely praised for its design — I don’t totally get it because to me it looks like a My Pretty Princess board game piece — its value add is exactly the same as most of the other smart jewelry out there: It vibrates when you receive a call, text, or notification to your smartphone.

That’s right, smart jewelry is falling into exactly the same trap as as smart watches have. The makers are trying to just graft the use cases of mobile onto another object, instead of designing natively for the new medium. It’s a natural problem given that wearables are a new enough space that no one has any prior art or best practices to inform their design. After all, when televisions first came out the first TV shows were basically radio presenters reading off a script. It takes awhile to experiment and learn how to take advantage of the a new medium.

But the smart jewelry purveyors who have even marginal success in this first wave should have a major marketplace advantage. At the moment they’re like a lost flock of sheep all following each other around, bleating helplessly and hoping consumers buy their products -- or in many cases, fund products that haven't been produced yet. There’s Ringly, Smarty Ring, Zazzi, MEMI, LinkMe, and Vybe all vying for the jewelry-buzzing-notifications crown.

Then there’s some misguided experimentation in the “magic wand” arena, where rings supposedly allow you to trace patterns in the air to send pre-written messages to people. Ring and Fin, the two competitors in this misguided market, haven’t even entered production yet, but range of likely problems is practically endless. You’re frantically trying to hail a cab and before you know it your ex-boyfriend just got an email from you after five years of not speaking. It says, “&&^#[email protected]!!!.” Very eloquent.

Lastly, there’s jewelry targeting the “home security” category. First Sign offers a hair clip that calls 911 if it suffers a blow — and therefore believes you’ve been attacked. The creepily named “Guardian Angel necklace” invites women to press an embedded sensor if they feel uncomfortable, causing the device to auto-dial their cell phone number so they can answer and walk away. There’s a range of jewelry items under the “Cuff” brand that allows users to notify friends or family of their location with a single press.

This set of use cases is perhaps the most compelling and native for the smart jewelry category. It’s taking the inherent properties of jewelry, that it’s close at hand and not clearly a communication device, to make it easier for the wearer to covertly alert someone that they’re in danger. But at the same time, the details still need to be ironed out. Imagine if you bumped your head innocuously while wearing the First Sign hair clip and before you knew it cops arrived at your office? Eeks. The list of similar "what ifs" abounds.

Perhaps the product that comes closest to taking advantage of jewelry’s inherent natural properties is Netatmo's JUNE, a glittering glass bracelet that track a person’s exposure to the sun, alerting someone when they’ve had enough exposure for their skin type. It’s not the most pressing or dire of needs unless you’re a routine sunbather (or suffer from serious photosensitivity), but at least it’s a creative use of some of the inherent benefits of jewelry as a form factor — it’s outside, constantly interacting with your environment, able to track things like weather.

While the headlines are pouring in, true innovation has yet to arrive in the wearable jewelry department. It will, no doubt, but first wave of designs have to finish being mediocre first.