Jewellery designers speak up for people with hearing issues
People wear jewellery as a form of self-expression and style but Patrizia Marti is keen to add practicality to the mix. The associate professor at Siena university has created Quietude, a range of smart jewellery to help deaf people perceive sound.
Ms Marti needs about €150,000 to finish the project and bring it to the market. She hopes to one day wear one of her necklaces to a disco, accompanied by some of the women with hearing impairments who helped her develop the idea.
Her three necklaces are made from materials including leather, felt and recycled plastic. They are sculptural and striking, with a passing resemblance to sea anemones.
Their wearability belies the sophisticated technology that allows the jewellery to translate sound into shape changes, light patterns and vibrations, letting the wearer perceive noise via their body.
“Some of the women we worked with in our co-design workshops said it would be nice to be in a disco and have something playful to enhance their experience,” says Ms Marti. “We often think of disability as a problem but we wanted to produce something that can dignify the body. Jewellery is something people can be proud to wear.”
Ms Marti’s original €50,000 seed funding came from Wear, an EU-backed consortium that brings together the high-tech and fashion industries to address ethical and environmental concerns. It engages creative professionals, designers and artists to create and market the next generation of wearables.
Quietude has been one of the initiative’s standout projects, according to Dr Heritiana Ranaivoson, a senior researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and co-ordinator of the Wear project.
Ms Marti, whose background spans philosophy, design and engineering, stresses that the Quietude range is a system ready for production — it is no longer a prototype. Her only remaining challenge is to find a smaller battery with a longer life, so the necklaces can be “worn and used freely”.
“We have had interest in our necklaces from all over the world. Now we are thinking about price. We can produce luxury high-end versions using precious metals as well as more affordable options. We are looking for a commercial partner to help us develop, produce and distribute.”
Besides funding, the problem faced by Ms Marti and others in the smart wearables sector is that the market has been “commercially driven thus far”, according to Leah Heiss, a designer and researcher at RMIT University, Melbourne. She is one of a number of academics to explore how jewellery and technology can enhance lives. Jewellery that includes interactive technology is not a gimmick, she and others argue. “People have a strong emotional relationship with jewellery. If we make something that is beautiful, that people are delighted by, they are more likely to use it,” says Ms Heiss.
Her sleek, modernist designs have included jewellery that can administer insulin to diabetics and a necklace that doubles as a heart monitor. She has also designed an award-winning modular self-fit hearing aid that claims to be a world first.
Ms Heiss’s latest project, the CaT pin, also has healthcare at its heart but tackles a broader societal issue — loneliness. She describes it as a “discreet, low-cost wearable in the form of a lapel pin or brooch that can be customised for the wearer by imprinting its surface with cherished jewellery, medals or textiles”.
The CaT pin detects the presence or absence of conversation. The idea is that the number of words spoken each day is compared with healthy interaction rates and becomes an indicator for social isolation. When the wearer drops below a set number of words an hour or day, a text message is sent to a loved one, volunteer phone service or healthcare worker. “This is technology that resonates with people’s identity,” says Ms Heiss.
The cost and development time of bringing healthcare wearables to market is a higher hurdle than for products associated with fitness and wellbeing.
Even for the smart jewellery aimed at the commercial end of the market, there have been many casualties. “To date the industry has been driven mostly by start-ups that have tech knowledge but don’t necessarily have jewellery experience,” says Juliet Hutton-Squire, co-founder of jewellery consultancy Adorn Insight. “As a result, there is a disconnect between the functionality, the aesthetic and wearability of the piece.”
The wearables market is projected to be worth $60bn by 2025, according to the most optimistic estimates. This figure includes smartwatches, fitness and wellness trackers, as well as “hearables,” which CCS Insight has tipped as “a major source of growth in the coming year”.
“Hearables are more affordable than a lot of wearables and there are only so many pieces of tech one person can wear on their body. You don’t need rings, watches, bracelets, necklaces. Once you have your smartwatch and your hearable you don’t need anything else,” says Priti Moudgill, co-founder of Peripherii, a New York start-up that plans to launch a range of earrings that act as earbuds.
Ms Moudgill hopes to be riding the crest of the wave in hearables and believes that medical wearables’ time will come, too. “This sector of the market will be huge in the future. Products for people with diabetes, for instance, would be fantastic.
“It will happen but it will probably need companies like Google and Microsoft to come on board. It may not be the small companies who can break through.”
In the meantime, three computer scientists at University of Chicago have come up with a bracelet for those who worry that too much connectivity threatens their privacy. Their invention looks like a statement piece of jewellery but stops any nearby microphones listening in to your conversation. It is the ultimate anti-tech tech jewellery.