- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Body piercing is growing up and leaving its gritty image behind as polished, professional women join the trend and do it their way decorating their belly buttons with expensive jewelry inlaid with such gems as sapphires, rubies and diamonds.
When it first started to be worn in the late 1980s, typically by teens, coeds and misfits, body jewelry was crafted from stripped-down steel and usually cost less than $30 for items such as nose and tongue studs, eyebrow rings, belly button rings and labret (chin-area) rings.
Wearing them usually carried a connotation: I'm alternative, rebellious … maybe just a little bit dangerous.
Today, 24-karat gold and precious stones are replacing the stainless-steel studs, driven by a wealthier clientele seeking high-end body jewelry that can run into thousands of dollars, according to Lane Beker, partner at the online body-jewelry retailer gembaby.com.
Some designer jewelry can cost more than $10,000, says Ronald Rotatori, owner of Rotatori Jewelers and Primal Urge Piercings in New Hope, Pa.
"This is not the $5, glow-in-the-dark vibrating body jewelry," Mr. Beker says.
The mainstreaming of body piercing has been ongoing. Last year, for example, Wal-Mart began to carry affordable body jewelry as a subsection of its jewelry department. Pierced kids today might be A students, or they might be home-schooled. They wear it more out of whimsy, not purely to send a message to society.
But the high-end jewelry is being marketed to and purchased by older women, who would rather opt for a belly-button pierce because, unlike an eyebrow ring or a tongue pierce, it can't be seen at the office or a black-tie dinner.
"Instead of being Britney Spears, you can do something that demonstrates your economic power by buying yourself a $2,000 ruby stud, and then put it in a place that is your secret, but it is your secret to share with somebody that you want to," according to Jerry Herron, professor of American studies at Wayne State University in Michigan.
The other piercings, like the eyebrow and tongue, are still the teen's domain.
"I certainly am not going to think that any of my customers are going to wear something like an eyebrow ring. [The belly-button jewels are] more fashion than the other types of body jewelry that are more of a statement," says Michael Jilkis, owner of Michael's Jewelry Studio in Maryland.
Moms and serious career girls may sport belly-button jewels as a show of confidence or quiet rebellion against society's expectations that they be "bubble gum princess[es]," as Mr. Herron says.
"You can get back into the game in an interesting way by not buying yourself a nice diamond, but buying yourself a nice diamond stud for your navel," he said.
For example, a client of Pat Scott Jewelers in Grosse Point Woods, Mich., a gynecologist, threw a piercing party for six colleagues. Jewelry designers have such women in mind serious, conservative dressers with some expendable income.
"It is not that piercing-tattoo kind of clientele," said Alan Toias, owner of Martinique Jewelers in Manhattan, which carries belly-button jewelry by Prana Gioia Belly Jewels. "I am selling to women who work in banks and stock firms, women that you wouldn't think have a belly jewel."
Some fashion-forward women are looking for something beyond the common necklaces and earrings, says Doron Basha, owner of Prana Gioia.
"The belly jewels represent the way that the woman feels about herself," he says. "When she wears it, the belly jewel displays her confidence about the way she looks and the fact that she takes care of herself."
It is this desire for individuality that fuels the trend, says Nancy Snow, communications professor at California State University in Fullerton.
"There's a clutter and noise factor in the mass culture that makes it hard for individuals to get noticed," Miss Snow says.
"The belly button is an emblem of individuality because like the proverbial snowflake, no two belly buttons are alike. [The piercing] says 'I am unique and different,' a little edgier than the almost-mainstream tattoo on the ankle."
Many of these women a large chunk of whom have had babies also belong to the health-conscious crowd. "Women are taking care of themselves longer and they don't believe that just because you had a baby you let your body fall apart," says Pat Scott Jewelers' owner Roxanne Scotella.
This new clientele is concerned about being fashionable, but does not want seem juvenile. This age group doesn't want to do something that could be considered teenagerlike, Mr. Herron says.
"It is like that man who became successful and in midcareer says, 'It is time for me to buy that convertible now,'" he says. "This is the 'little red sports car' body decoration for women."
Even though jewelry stores are tending to make hundreds of dollars per customer on jewelry for navels, some shopkeepers are concerned it will degrade the image of the store, says Howard Horowitz, president of b.k.r.a. body jewelry.
But, he says, the positive result inevitably surprises merchants. It's their usual clientele, who have purchased bracelets and rings, who branch out and shell out big bucks for it. From Midwest communities on out to the coasts, lifestyle not weather or city life drives the trend across the country, Mr. Basha said.
"At first, I was very reluctant, especially being here in New York, going from fine jewelry to the idea of belly jewelry," Mr. Toias says. "But when we tried it, we even [displayed] it in the window, and it did very well."
Miss Scotella saw a similar reaction at her store, even though Grosse Pointe Woods is a conservative, old-money community.
"We were afraid of the reaction we were going get with the first ad," she said. "Even the newspaper thought they would get calls about it. But it turned out to be quite positive. It actually was something that the community was looking for."
Jewelers such as Cornelia Hollander plan to continue investing in the trend. "The younger generation is full of holes," the Scottsdale, Ariz., jewelry designer said. "Once they get a bit more money, they might get into more expensive body jewelry."

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