In her heyday, María Félix, Mexico’s greatest female film star, was celebrated the world over for her extraordinary beauty. But today she is remembered more for her wild streak, particularly when it came to jewellery. Félix had a taste for pieces inspired by the animal kingdom, as the employees of a Cartier shop in Paris discovered one day in 1975, when she strode inside carrying a bowl which contained a tiny pet crocodile. She instructed the jewellers to design a piece in its image, then walked out. What she got was a necklace composed of two gold crocodiles, one encrusted with over a thousand yellow diamonds, the other with even more emeralds. Félix added it to her menagerie of “animals”, which included a diamond necklace in the shape of a serpent, a trio of panthers (two brooches, one bangle), and two snakes whose gold and enamel coils formed earrings.
They weren’t the most exotic specimens in her collection, but those earrings were her constant companions. It wasn’t just that the snakes almost seemed to be hissing into her ears, as if they were her familiars. They belonged to a species of earring which, in a struggle of the chicest, triumphed over all the rest: the hoop. Félix liked to wear low-cut dresses with her dark, curly hair flowing over her bare shoulders – a look that wasn’t completed until she’d fastened on her hoops. This was exactly the way an infatuated Diego Rivera, one of her many lovers, painted the actress: with her big gold hoops and a wild look in her eyes, a creature he had not a hope of taming. (“He threw himself on me like misery threw itself on the poor,” she once said.)
Félix would have recognised a kindred spirit in Dinny Hall, a jewellery designer with a hint of mischief about her. “Men are a little bit nervous of hoops,” she tells me, as she tucks her honey-coloured hair behind her ears revealing two gold hoops of her own creation. She smiles conspiratorially. There is an idea that “a woman who wears a big hoop is a slattern,” she says. In the popular imagination, they are the earrings of choice of women like Carmen Miranda, Rihanna and Félix – strong, sexually confident women who don’t give a stuff about society’s expectations of them. To men, that type of woman can be “scary”. Hall’s smile breaks into a grin.
To this, “women themselves would say ‘what a load of poppycock’,” she admits. Hoops are almost as old as jewellery itself, and they have been worn by all kinds of women, from Jackie O to Sade and Lena Dunham. The earring has endured for millennia not because women like to make men nervous (Félix, and perhaps Hall, proving the exception), but because it is a simple, light-weight design – and versatile. Hall’s neat, slender hoops are an exercise in elegant restraint; Annoushka, a British designer, puts her twist on the classic by placing glittering butterflies, bees and snails into the crook of hers; while Amrapali, an Indian brand, goes for showstopping pieces dripping with colourful gems. Today, hoops are a staple of every jewellery box, and they are bestselling earrings for Hall, Annoushka and Amrapali.
Yet, for all the hoop’s virtues, you can see why it’s better known for vice. The earring lifts the face “like a lick of mascara”, as Hall says: it draws attention to the body in the same way make-up does. But don’t think it constitutes an invitation. The hoop is the calling card of a woman who lives life on her terms, the kind of woman willing to make those who cross her suffer. Félix once said that she sometimes had to hurt men to keep them from subjugating her. “I have waged many difficult wars to defend my liberty. Love is also a war.” Only a woman in hoops could have the balls to say something like that.