i love you, elizabeth duke

If you don’t know Elizabeth Duke, then either you’re not from the UK or Ireland, or you’re one of those insanely wealthy people who don’t know how buses work.

Elizabeth Duke isn’t a person. Or rather, she was a person, but her name has taken on a cultural resonance of its own; co-opted by a multi-million pound brand which nevertheless became a derisive shorthand for tacky, tasteless, nakedly aspirational consumption. Because in 1977, the reassuringly polite ‘Elizabeth Duke’, with its dual implications of aristocratic discretion and cautious suburban femininity, became ‘Elizabeth Duke of Bond Street’, the in-house jewellery brand of Argos; the mass-market shop where you could buy everything from a toaster to a tanning bed, all with the aid of a laminated catalogue and a miniature blue pen.

A bit of history: Argos had offered jewellery from its inception in 1973, although the first few catalogues credited ‘Jason of Bond Street’ with the design and production of their offer. (No idea who Jason is). The ED branding first appeared in 1977, named for Elizabeth Tompkins née Duke, the wife of Argos founder Richard Tompkins. Early Argos shoppers were reassured by a blurb in the catalogue from (the presumably real) ‘Mr Brian Selwood of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain’, that the low, low prices of Argos’ jewellery were simply a result of their diversified, direct-to-consumer business plan; rather than an indicator of low, low quality. By the 1980s ED had acquired its logo, a golden lion passant on a burgundy background. As heraldic as you could ever want, and conveniently similar to the UK assay mark for sterling silver, it codified ED as an aspirational brand, even as the pricing remained accessible. Curiously, ED’s jewellery was stubbornly traditional in its style, and remains so today, although the ED branding has been defunct since 2007. Cameo brooches, engraved lockets, diamond cluster rings that could have been bought in 1905, all laid out defiantly on the catalogue pages as if modernism never happened. Aspiration, of course, is not necessarily about being at the cutting edge of fashion. In the anxious space where we construct our social selves, sometimes tradition and heritage feel like the safer strategies in pursuit of status.

My mother worked for Argos in the 90s, mainly as a supervisor on the ED counter - so naturally, our family jewels, passed down from parent to child (once), are predominantly 9ct bling of the sentimental variety. Though we also boast a trove of H. Samuel and QVC treasures, the ED pieces stand out in my memory, not only because of the staff discount, but also in testimony to the fact that they were bought in connection with some kind of life event. Such as the tiny child’s heart-shaped signet ring, given to me to mark my First Communion. I no longer keep the faith, but I did keep the ring; although these days I can barely get it onto my pinkie finger. Or the nameplate necklace, all cursive D a n i e l l e in slender gold letters, which my sister bought for me as a birthday present, enabled by careful hoarding of her teenage pocket money. And, of course, my late father’s gold crucifix, which I still keep in a box along with his cufflinks and silver-plated cigarette case. My mother bought it for him as a Christmas present, only for my (Protestant) father to exclaim, ‘We don’t put Jesus on a cross!!’ in scandalised Ulster tones. When she offered up the receipt, and the chance to return or exchange the gift (for something less overtly Papist, presumably), he deliberated for a moment and then pronounced ‘No, it’s OK… it is gold’. 

Because yes, it is gold. It might be 9ct, and more often than not the gemstones are those inexpensive dark blue-black sapphires, or heavily included diamonds in the H-K colour range - or even the much-maligned cubic zirconia. But these niceties of carat and colour matter less when you, the consumer, just want to tap into the mythos of precious materials. Whether you buy jewellery for another person, materialising the dynamics of your relationship (I love you, I commit to you, I’m sorry I hurt you, I want you to remember me); or you buy it for yourself as an act of self-appreciation, your motivation is in large part down to the reverence with which humans have approached scarce and shiny substances for millennia. The durability and value of our relationships is mirrored in the durability and value of the jewels with which we mark them.

That said, I don’t think that the sneering directed at ED can be explained simply by its accessible pricing. FYI, their items are all marked and ‘real’ - in fact, such was the demand that the Birmingham Assay Office established a dedicated sub-office to deal solely with the checking and marking of Argos jewellery. To understand the derision, the casual throwing of epithets such as ‘chav’ and ‘trashy’, you need to understand the weird intersection of consumption, class and race that constitutes British - and to a lesser extent, Irish - cultural identity. ED is inexpensive, yes. But it’s designed to look expensive and, therefore, to mimic the consumption of the wealthy and privileged; and therein lies the sin. My own field research (Yates’ Wine Lodge c.2001-03), plus that of Actual Sociologists, makes it abundantly clear that people with fewer financial means are, conversely, those who perform consumption in the most conspicuous ways. Put it like this - if your income derives from busting your arse for low wages and long but precarious hours in a factory, on the shop floor, behind a bar, or tied to a headset in a call centre... then why the hell would you want to spend your hard-earned money on discreet blandness?

If your only ‘network’ is your familial one, rather than the kind that depends on handshakes and old school ties, why shouldn’t you commemorate that with a ring that says ‘NAN’ or ‘MUM’? If you’re a person of colour, with a name that white English people find ‘impossible’ to pronounce (although they can manage ‘Cholmondeley’, like, whatever Karen), why shouldn’t you celebrate it in gold, emblazoned proudly across your front? Sentiment is something that the Establishment loves to sneer at, all while exploiting working class sentimental associations for political and financial gain. Patriotism, poppies and Princess Di. So sentimental jewellery is beyond the Pale of good taste; likewise jewellery that lets the wearer take up space, visually and metaphorically, in the face of a societal structure that wants them to be smaller, quieter and less disruptive. Unless it gets co-opted ironically, of course; normally by somebody rich, thin and white. ED’s giant gold hoop earrings were a staple of south London street style in the 90s, worn by rude girls, cool girls, and, uh, my mother. (Hers were the oval kind with the unfortunate name of ‘Creole’ earrings). Closely associated with Afro-Carribean style, they also were mocked as ‘chav’ earrings, a racist and classist categorisation of a jewellery item that allowed the wearer to, yes, Take Up Space in the face of prejudice and marginalisation. Fast forward twenty years, and Céline, arbiter elegantiarum of taste under St Phoebe of Philo, was selling near-identical earrings - in brass! not gold! - at ten times the price of their ED counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fully morphed into an insufferable middle-class Person of Taste and therefore love (Old) Céline; but come on Pheebs, ED did it first. Their version, after all is gold.

Danielle Thom