The future of wearables: ‘Women have used earrings for 7,000 years. We’ve just upgraded the experience’
Finding a way of arranging earphones, glasses, hair and earrings without getting tangled up was never easy. But with the Covid-19 era addition of a face mask, the struggle for scarce real estate on our heads has got ridiculous.
Which is why a Munich company launching a new genre of earrings may be about to strike gold. Nova Audio is both a tech and a jewellery start-up. Its pearl earrings are also earphones, the freshwater pearl in each drilled through to fit minuscule electronics – a tiny speaker, two microphones, an antenna, a Bluetooth chip and a battery.
The sound, ported wirelessly from your phone or whatever, is fired through the drilled hole and plays around the outer parts of each ear canal so as to be perfectly audible, without cutting you off from the outside world.
“It’s not like being blasted with bass,” says Nova’s co-founder Vlad Perianu. “That’s not possible because of the tiny battery. It’s more like having a radio on in the background.”
The idea is that people will wear Audio Earrings all day, listen to music, take calls, and when they don’t want sound, still be wearing them. “Women have used earrings for 7,000 years. We’ve just upgraded the experience,” Perianu says. “This for me is what makes it the wearable technology par excellence. It’s a whole new category between jewellery and electronics.”
Nova’s Audio Earrings go on sale later this year at around €500 – they debuted on Kickstarter and picked up nearly 320 orders. Theirs is far from the first attempt at bridging the technology/jewellery divide. Since around 2014, a clutch of start-ups have tried to do what Nova are now attempting, if a lot less neatly, but hit the rocks. One British contender, Kovert, launched a range of smart brooches in 2015. The brooches would discreetly notify the wearer of incoming calls, emails or texts from key contacts without the need for getting out a phone. Despite positive publicity in the fashion media, it failed. Kovert tried again as Vinaya, but didn’t quite pull it off.
More recently, rings stuffed with technology to track fitness, sleep, heart rate, body temperature and calories burned have done rather better. Finnish brand Oura produces elegant, unadorned rings that tease an extraordinary amount of useful data from the subtle signals it picks up. Research at the University of California suggests Oura successfully detected Covid-19 symptoms in people who later tested positive.
But why is the idea of wearing tech as jewels only breaking through now? First, the electronics have finally allowed for miniaturisation on the scale exploited by Nova and Oura. The success of Apple’s AirPods, born in 2016, also laid the cultural foundation for something that was more than just technology. AirPods were out and proud; they didn’t look like anything else, and we could have hated them, but we loved them. Similarly, an Oura ring couldn’t really be mistaken for a piece that is purely a jewel – its offerings are on the substantial side of delicate – but still would not shame any hand or look at all geeky.
The celebrity-blessed – but also technically respected – New York headphone-maker Master & Dynamic was one of the first to run with the idea of earphones as something close to jewellery by launching special editions of its wireless earphones. Collaborations with fashion brands, artists, a tattooist, even with The Rolling Stones, appear across the range. Last year, I featured a colourful earphone made by Master & Dynamic for Louis Vuitton.
But M&D founder Jonathan Levine still concludes that brands pushing into wearable jewellery, such as Nova, are being brave. “There’s a fine line to designing tech wearables, particularly those to be worn on the head like earphones and headphones. If it feels too techie, you’ve isolated the part of the market interested in design and fashion. If it’s too pretty and precious, then you’ve isolated those wanting something more serious and performance driven.”
Another strand to the emerging tech-as-jewellery story are the pure jewellery start-ups making decorative pieces to zap up hearing aids and cochlear implants. If you can buy beautiful glasses for poor eyesight, the rationale goes, why not the same kind of thing for impaired hearing? Paris design studio F and D was winning awards for a putative product it called Hearrings as early as 2018. And two year-old Finnish start-up Deafmetal has reported serious success with its hearing-aid jewellery.
“We just launched a huge collection in the US and I’m in touch with an audiologist in London because we get a lot of orders from the UK,” says founder and designer Jenni Ahtiainen. She designed stage costumes for performers such as Marilyn Manson, Snoop Dogg and Bono before losing her hearing in 2018, and made her first hearing jewellery for herself. She is committed to keeping the price of her pieces accessible – they cost as little as £18 – and to using only “authentic hard of hearing people” as models. One of her designs, a small crucifix, appears in her publicity material with the caption, “MODEL: Risto Salminen, hard of hearing bank manager in Etela-Hameen Osuuspankki, Hameenlinna, Finland.”
If you can get a male bank manager wearing hearing-aid jewellery, it’s fair to say you have a trend on your hands.