Smart jewelry tested: do beautiful devices have the brains to compete?

Valentina Palladino

Fossil’s Q hybrid devices toe the line between smartwatches and smart jewelry, other devices focus more on style and personality than they do on tech.

I tested out a few of these pieces of smart jewelry to see if their fashion sense, combined with their tech chops, really set them apart from their traditional wearable counterparts.

Ela

Design

The Warren Buffet-backed Ela line keeps the sentimentality in jewelry while adding smart features. Let’s take a look at Ela’s design—all of its bracelets have a large, rounded-square stone of Italian marbleized quartz as the main decor, fitted on either a leather strap or a metal bangle. Underneath the stone is an LED that glows in eight different colors depending on who’s calling or messaging you. In the Ela app, you can assign colors to contacts so you’ll be alerted when they contact you even when your phone is out of sight. The bangles are luxurious, while the leather straps give the bracelet a more relaxed look. The design is attractive yet simple enough to go with any kind of outfit, but I wouldn’t say the overall look warrants the $195 price tag.

The Ela bracelet tracks steps throughout the day, but it doesn’t do so by default. You need to turn the feature on in the Ela app, and it warns that doing so will decrease the device’s battery life. Ela recommends charging the bracelet every night when you go to bed, which makes sense since most people don’t wear jewelry when they sleep. But the company only promises two to three days of battery life for the bracelet when step tracking is disabled. When turned on, you will certainly need to charge the battery every night.

Compared to today’s technology, that’s kind of crazy—Fitbit’s $99 Flex 2—which you can style with accessories to be arguably just as pleasant as an Ela bracelet—tracks steps—has color-coded LED notifications and gets five days of battery life without breaking a sweat. Battery life may be less important for a device like Ela because you don’t wear it to bed, while the Flex 2 needs that extra juice to track movement and sleep over five days. Regardless, a device like Ela that does relatively little compared to a device like the Flex 2 shouldn’t need to be charged every night.

Data and Memories

Arguably the most idiosyncratic feature of any Ela device is Memories, which lets you save photos and audio clips to the device that can only be seen by you and the device’s wearer (or only you, if those people are one in the same). The concept makes the most sense when giving an Ela bracelet as a gift. Imagine you purchased the bracelet for your significant other for their birthday. Before gifting it, you can connect the device to your smartphone and, using the Ela mobile app, save content to the device that your significant other will see immediately when they pair their new bracelet to their own smartphone.

Ela jewelry doesn’t have a screen, speakers, or onboard storage, so saving content to it really just associates the content to that device and stores it in the cloud. Those photos and clips live in the Ela app, so you’ll need to revisit the app whenever you want to see those memories, and you can only save about 100MB work of data as Memories. Jewelry, smart or not, can often evoke memories, so this is a modern way of making those memories more accessible.

However, the accessibility of this content makes it feel a little less personal. Anyone could open up the Ela app on your phone and immediately see those special photos and clips. On the flip side, now many of us look back, deep into our smartphone’s photo albums, to relive past memories via photos, videos, gifs, and more.

Maybe I put too much emphasis on the sacredness of memories between two individuals, but I’d rather be given physical photographs or special objects instead of a piece of jewelry attached to an app that holds a few digital images. Those who grew up reliving memories through a screen and the Internet may not feel the same way. Personally, the novelty of Memories would wear off for me after a few weeks. Also, there’s no real use for Memories if you buy an Ela bracelet for yourself. Sure, you can populate it regularly with your favorite photos and audio clips, but you probably already do that in other apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify.

I feel safe predicting that Ela’s LED-and-vibrating contact notifications will be more useful than Memories in the long-term. It may seem like a lot to remember if you assign all eight colors to different contacts, but that many color-coded contacts is not unheard of. Companies like Fossil Group use color-coded lights or windows on watches and bracelets to show incoming calls and texts from important contacts. I only program three to four colors on any of these devices, so I never have a hard time remembering that a text from my mom will make the bracelet glow blue while a call from my boyfriend will produce a pink light.

Bellabeat

Design

Bellabeat’s Leaf activity tracker will likely appeal to nature-lovers at first glance. The device’s design mimics a minimalist plant with a metal leaf-shaped case surrounding the activity tracking module. You can get the Leaf Nature with a module made from natural wood that’s splash-proof, or you can get the Leaf Urban with a module made of a wood-composite with the appearance and texture of stone. I tested the Leaf Urban, and it’s a bit more resistant to water than its Nature counterpart because it’s not made entirely out of wood.

Weighing 0.59 ounces and measuring 1.8 x 1.1 x 0.43 inches, the Leaf is small enough to fit on a necklace or bracelet. However, it might be too big to comfortably wear on certain clothing—the metal case construction lets you clip the Leaf to your clothing (the company shows it worn as a decorative brooch on your collar). But it seems slightly heavy for flimsy or flowy fabrics like rayon.

After wearing the Leaf as a bracelet for a few days, I promptly switched it to its necklace chain because I couldn’t stand the included double-wrap wristband. It’s difficult to secure mainly because the two hooks that attach to the Leaf’s metal case aren’t malleable, so the Leaf module easily falls out of one or both of them because of the size of the hooks’ openings. You also have to wrap the band around your wrist twice, which not only takes more time, but it also gives the Leaf module more time and opportunity to fall out of the secure hooks. The bracelet combination looks nice when you finally get it on your wrist, but it’s not worth the hassle when you also get a necklace with the device.

Data and the Bellabeat app

The only reason I’d recommend wearing the Leaf on your wrist is for sleep tracking, which it does automatically. Wearing a necklace to bed seems like a recipe for entanglement, but to each their own. The Leaf’s sleep tracking has pros and cons—it automatically enters sleep mode (there are no buttons on the device, so it has to do that), but it’s not that great at estimating exactly when you fell asleep. After the first night I slept with the device, I synced data to the Leaf smartphone app and the device thought I fell asleep two hours after I actually did. Thankfully, an in-app pop-up lets you immediately edit sleep and wake-up times. The Leaf did get better over time, mostly with more accurate wake-up times as it never totally got my fall-sleep time correct.

Aside from sleep, the Leaf tracks activity, stress, mediation, and menstrual cycles for women. Activity stats are generic but still accurate as far as step counts go. I wish the Leaf could identify periods of intense activity like workouts, but it doesn’t, and you’ll have to input those yourself. The menu of activities you can log is vast, which is a great perk, and a small star over your activity bar graph indicates when during the day you met your move goal. Along with a daily activity graph, the app also shows you daily and weekly averages of active time, steps, and distance, as well as calories burned through activity and resting.

I’m not the best at meditating regularly (I’m trying to get better), but I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of the meditation program in the Leaf app. After you set goals for how often or long you meditate, you can choose from a number of pre-made programs in the app. Categories include “feeling grounded” and “de-stress,” among others, and have at least four or five guided meditation programs to complete. In total, there are about 25 meditation options to choose from if you want the Leaf app to guide you, otherwise you can log meditation minutes manually.

Each meditation session has a long and short version. I typically completed the four-minute short versions, but there are eight- or 10-minute versions as well. Each has a soothing voice guiding you through a fanciful scenario meant to relax you, while instructing you to breathe deeply, close your eyes, and other small body movements. There are sound effects involved (one “back pain” session I did featured the sounds of a babbling brook, chirping birds, and peaceful winds), but not much music because you’re meant to focus on your own thoughts, breathing patterns, and the instructions of the app’s voice coach.

The Leaf’s guided meditation sessions proved to me that the hardest part of meditation is setting aside time and doing it. I enjoyed the few four-minute sessions I completed, and I felt relaxed after each one. Most wearable companies are incorporating guided breathing exercises into their wristbands, but they typically involve on-screen animation and no sounds or voice coach. Using a mobile app that provides soothing sound effects and a helpful voice, on the other hand, immerses you in the mediation world better than a silent, blinking screen can.

Leaf also estimates your “stress level” as well as giving you a way to manage that stress via guided meditation. This is the most peculiar piece of data in the Leaf app because the program estimates both your level of stress and how prone your body may be to getting stressed out. Leaf uses every piece of information at its disposal to predict stress habits, including how much sleep you got, when you went to bed, how active you’ve been, how much (or how little) you’ve meditated, and more. Stress level is represented by a colored geometric shape with four points that lean toward different health aspects that affect stress: steps, sleep, menstrual cycle, and meditation. A red shape indicates high-stress sensitivity while an orange shape indicates a moderate stress sensitivity. A green shape shows you have “everything under control,” presumably because every trackable health aspect is balanced.

Leaf makes stress tracking more complicated than it should be because the device essentially says you will be highly sensitive to stress when you haven’t been meeting your health goals. The app presumes that when you’ve been slacking on your movement, meditation, and sleep (and when you’re close to That Time of the Month), you’ll be more stressed out because your body isn’t performing at its peak. Personally, I know when I haven’t slept well or when I’ve missed a workout or two. I don’t need to see those points laid out in an app to know when my body isn’t in balance—but others may have other priorities and responsibilities that get in the way of that kind of self-awareness.

This isn’t the most accurate way to determine stress levels because it’s based on the accuracy of the information Leaf detects and the information you provide. The Leaf doesn’t track heart rate either, so it won’t be able to tell you if something physiologically strange is going on. While no fitness tracker or smartwatch can account for the mental factors that may cause stress, I trust devices with heart-rate monitors to provide insight into stress levels more than those without pulse sensors.

Motiv

Design and sizing

Few pieces of smart jewelry reach outside the realm of bracelets and necklaces, and the $199 Motiv ring is one of them. It’s a smart ring with a minimalist design but a lot of technology packed inside of it. Each Motiv ring is made of lightweight titanium, and its surface is entirely smooth except for a small strip with a few LED lights. These lights don’t shine very brightly, so others won’t be able to see them, but they do indicate things like battery life and syncing to the mobile app.

The ring is waterproof up to 5ATM, so you don’t have to take it off every time you need to wash your hands. Available in slate gray and rose gold, Motiv is one of the only pieces of smart jewelry I’ve seen that could be worn by both men and women comfortably. Jewelry isn’t just for women, but a simple, unassuming band may appeal to more men than a bejeweled bracelet or a whimsical necklace.

The ring measures 2.5mm at its thickest point where the heart-rate monitor juts out from the underside. The optical heart-rate monitor on the ring is small, and you’ll only see one green, flashing light when you take the ring off. It’s meant to sit against the top of your finger so it can read your pulse every few minutes. It’s not a continuous heart-rate monitor, but that sacrifice helps the ring get at least three days of battery life on a single charge. That estimated battery life holds up in regular use, as I didn’t have to charge my ring from Friday through Sunday while wearing it both night and day.

Rings aren’t as easy to buy as other types of jewelry because you need to know your size. Even as someone who wears multiple rings daily, I don’t know the different sizes for my index, middle, and ring fingers (I wear rings on all of them). Motiv makes the process easier by providing users with a recyclable ring kit that lets you try on fake rings before you buy your real one. Inside the kit are fake Motiv rings, without the finish or technology found on the real ones, in every size available. You can try them all on, wear a few different sizes throughout the day, and decide which is best for you. When finished with the test kit, Motiv encourages you to pass it on to a friend or family member who may want to get a Motiv ring, or you can recycle the entire kit.

Data and Motive app

You’re meant to wear the Motiv ring all day and night so it can capture heart-rate information during the day, while you exercise, and while you sleep. Motiv places most importance on heart-rate extremes, showing your resting heart rate in its mobile app and quantifying active minutes as the number of minutes your heart rate was elevated during the day. Motiv recommends 150 active minutes per week, which comes out to about 22 active minutes per day. For those used to walking around the block or shaking their fist to complete your tracker’s daily move goal, you won’t be able to get by (or cheat) that way with the Motiv ring.

You’ll only get credit for the minutes that your heart rate was elevated. Motiv counts active minutes as those when your heart rate is at 40 percent or more of your aerobic capacity. Everyone’s aerobic capacity is different, and Motiv calculates it by subtracting your resting heart rate from your max heart rate. You won’t see any of this math completed in the Motiv app—you’ll only see the number of active minutes you completed so far during the day, and how much more you need to reach the daily goal. For some, reaching that 40-percent threshold of your aerobic capacity might involve taking a walk around the block, but others may have to go for a late-night run to reach their daily active minutes goal.

This unique way of measuring active minutes gave me a different perspective on my day-to-day activity. Unsurprisingly, I gleaned most of my active minutes in the morning while working out. However, my heart rate didn’t reach 40 percent or higher of my aerobic capacity in every single minute of my workout. That meant only a fraction of my exercise time was included in my daily active minute score. That was disheartening at first because I felt like the entirety of my workout didn’t really count. I might have been active for an hour each day, but only I only spent 20 to 30 minutes of that hour in Motiv’s threshold for active minutes. I was upset at first that I didn’t reach my active minutes goal every day, but knowing it’s harder to do so with Motiv’s metrics gave me some solace.

The Motiv ring doesn’t automatically detect periods of exercise, but you can section those parts of your day off in the Motiv app. You can also categorize those workouts, but the Motiv app isn’t the best place to track regular workouts if you’re interested in detailed exercise stats. The only available stats are duration, date, activity category, and “intensity,” which you can adjust depending on how hard you went during that workout. I appreciate the layout of the activity section in the Motiv app, particularly the graphs that show step count and heart rate for the same time period. However, the app will be too simple for those who care about in-depth workout data.

The Motiv ring has an interesting way of syncing to its app: you must twist it around your ringer while wearing it. Doing so with the right momentum will make the LED strip flash with a tiny blue light. The Motiv mobile app should have a “syncing” indicator at the top of the homepage after that. Most of the time this worked as intended, but the app was slow to upload data from the ring. It took an average of 20 seconds for the ring to sync with the app, and syncing failed twice for apparently no reason. This doesn’t appear to be a consistent problem, but it will take a few tries to get your personal twisting motion right for syncing.

“Traditional” yet fashionable trackers

How did we get here?

The key to smart jewelry that sets it apart from other wearables is that it’s jewelry first. Wearable companies tend to take a tech-first approach and then worry about aesthetics later. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, plenty of wearable manufacturers are more fashion-conscious now than they’ve ever been. When attitudes were first shifting, companies tried to make devices as thin and light as possible: think the original Fitbit Flex, the Misfit Ray, and the original Garmin Vivofit. Making bulky wristbands as demure as possible almost put them in the same category as casual bracelets—they were devices that, with a quick glance, could be mistaken for jewelry.

Then companies started making embellished devices, and many partnered with established fashion houses to do so. One of Fitbit’s first collaborations was with Tory Burch, and that relationship continues today even as Fitbit partnered with other names including Public School and Vera Wang. Most recently, Fitbit partnered with Adidas and will come out with a designer version of the flagship Fitbit Ionic smartwatch in 2018. Misfit still sells its Swarovski-edition Shine device, which puts a huge crystal on the disk-shaped device. The company also has a new program called M.Y. Misfit, which lets you customize the look of nearly every Misfit device available, from the basic Ray bracelet to the forthcoming Vapor smartwatch.

Apple also chose this route with the Apple Watch, adding optional fashion-collaboration bands from Hermès, Nike, Coach, and others, as well as high-end case materials like ceramic. Five years ago, finding an attractive wearable was a challenge. But now, users have a bunch of options that represent either collaborations with big designers or manufacturer-made additions.

Also a few years ago, most of the style options were confined to entry-level and mid-range wearables. Rare was the wearable with features like onboard GPS (something only a certain group of fitness enthusiasts need) that also had more than a couple of colorways or a scant few accessories. We’re starting to see more of that now, likely due to the popularity of higher-end smartwatches like the Apple Watch.

At launch, the $375 wearable from Apple had a few band options and case colors, and those have only increased in the few years the watch has been on sale. If a device over $300 with most hardware features an athlete would want can look decent, so can others that are competing to be on the same level.

Are all wearables “smart jewelry?”

Thanks to these advancements, you don’t have to buy a dedicated piece of “smart jewelry” to get an attractive device. The stylishness of a wearable is ultimately subjective and particular to your own sense of style, so the use cases of these wearables are what defines them. Most smart jewelry falls under the fitness tracker category since those devices track steps at the very least. Some go further depending on their included software and hardware features, but they’re often not as comprehensive or established as existing fitness trackers.

While testing some smart jewelry devices, I also revisited the Fitbit Flex 2 in a Tory Burch bracelet and the Misfit Ray in a design that I customized using M.Y. Misfit. First, we should note the price differences between regular fitness trackers and those that have been stylized. A regular Misfit Ray sells for $80, but, after using M.Y. Misfit to get a special tassel strap, my device ended up costing $90. Fitbit’s Flex 2 costs $60, but it became much more expensive with the addition of the Tory Burch hinged bracelet: the pair came out to $200.

Arguably the biggest difference between regular wearables and dedicated smart jewelry is the breadth of trackable information each can monitor. Regular wearables often track much more than smart jewelry devices, and this is the case for Fitbit’s and Misfit’s devices in comparison to the Ela bracelet. Both the Flex 2 and the Ray track steps, distance, calories, sleep, and swim activities, while the Ela bracelet only tracks steps. If you look at the value you get for your money, Misfit’s Ray is easily worth its $90 price tag in comparison to $200 Ela. Even Fitbit’s Flex 2 with the Tory Burch bracelet is a better value since it does more as an activity tracker. Unless you’re buying an Ela device solely for its unique gift and memory feature, you’re not getting as much as you could for your money.

Both Misfit and Fitbit have also added miscellaneous features to their trackers that may be more useful to users than something like Ela’s memory keeper feature or Bellabeat Leaf’s stress and meditation tracking features. Misfit’s devices have Link compatibility, meaning you can tap or press a button on the device to control a smart light bulb, take a photo with your smartphone’s camera, and more.

Fitbit has Smart Track on nearly all its devices so they can automatically track activities longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Neither the Flex 2 nor the Ray track heart rate like the Motiv ring does, but you pay for that in Motiv’s $200 price tag. Without any bling or customization, both the Flex 2 and the Ray are less than $100—most devices that can track heart rate come in at over $100. Even in Fitbit’s own line, the most affordable device with an optical heart-rate monitor is the $150 Alta HR.

Similarly, regular wearables, particularly activity trackers, tend to have more sophisticated apps. This is directly related to the amount of data those wearables track: their companion apps need to be thoughtful so they can display activity data in user-friendly ways. Both Fitbit and Misfit have intuitive apps that connect to all their devices and a host of third-party apps, which makes storing all your health information in one place easy.

While the companion apps for the Ela bracelet, Leaf necklace, and Motiv ring aren’t horrible, they’re not as easy to use or comprehensive as those for Fitbit or Misfit devices. The Leaf’s app is decently laid out, but I see a missed opportunity for Ela’s app. It only shows you your total step count for the day, but the company could have put a bar or line graph showing at which times you were moving most, and it could let users manually add activity in the app if they want to track the frequency of their workouts.

I wanted to see that in Motiv’s app as well. You can technically see when you’ve been most active during the day when adding an activity session, but the information is buried.

Overall, smart jewelry lags behind traditional wearables in many ways. While these pieces show their uniqueness like peacocks with elegant designs and expensive materials, most are not as advanced as even the most basic fitness trackers. Out of the devices I tested, the only one I’d consider buying is the Motiv ring. Its compact heart-rate monitor is impressive, its waterproof design is just minimalist enough to appeal to men and women of all tastes, and its three-day battery life is better than some smartwatches available.

The line between smart jewelry and regular wearables is blurred—now it’s more of a spectrum than ever before. Fitness trackers and smartwatches may not have started out fashionable, but they’ve evolved to be more attractive than their first-generation counterparts. Long-term use of any of these devices comes down how crucial their features are to your lifestyle. You may be attracted to the style of a smart bracelet or a tech-toting ring, but they could end up at the bottom of your drawer along with an old, basic fitness tracker if they don’t add value to your everyday life.

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