A Brief History of Charm Bracelets*

Small symbolic objects-- talismans and tokens worn close to the body for protection, identification, luck or pure decoration-- have been part of the human experience for as long as we've had even rudimentary tools. There’s evidence that stone-age people in Africa used shells 75,000 years ago as personal ornamentation. Tiny figurines carved of wooly mammoth tusks 30,000 years ago have been discovered in Germany. Ancient Egyptians cast gold charms as early as 3,000 B.C. to protect and identify both the living and the dead. The first charm bracelets appeared in 700 B.C., courtesy of Western Asian societies—Assyrians, Hittites, Persians and Babylonians.  

From then on, charms continued to mark history, identity and even incantations: Christians during the Roman Empire wore hidden fish charms to mark their faith: Jewish scholars wore hollow tube-shaped amulets holding slips of parchment with passages from Jewish law as a sign of reverence; and knights in the Middle Ages carried charms they believed would disarm their enemies. During the European Age of Enlightenment, charms lost favor among the educated eager to shed "Dark Age superstitions".  For others, however, charms retained their magic to bring power, luck and prosperity to their owners.

Several trends converged in Victorian times to launch the modern charm era.  Ornamental jewelry became more affordable for the middle class as large mineral deposits around the world were mined in colonial empires and America’s western frontier. The Industrial Revolution spawned new metal-stamping techniques for mass production. And finally, Queen Victoria herself favored sentimental charm bracelets, a fact popularized in portraits and press. Bracelets with heart shaped clasps were popular engagement gifts.

Until the 1920’s, charms were a fashionable accessory for both men and women. Men wore charms representing sports and fraternal societies on their pocket watch (fob) chains, until wrist watches became the norm. As the male market faded, jewelry manufacturers increased their marketing to women.

During the Roaring Twenties, prestigious fashion jewelers such as Cartier and Faberge crafted ornate gold charms with precious gems. But when the Depression hit, production shifted to less expensive options, including small machine-stamped charms and prefabricated bracelets with themed charms. Animals and common household items such as fans, telephones, rolling pins, traffic lights and scissors were popular. Many charms had moving parts, such as toasters with small slices of silver "bread" that popped up with a lever.

During and right after World War Two, charm bracelets incorporated military charms such as sailor caps, tanks, guns and airplanes. Sterling silver was a common material for even the lowest priced items, because silver was one of the few metals that didn’t have military use. Soldiers would send charms for “sweetheart bracelets” to their girlfriends, fiancés, wives, and other relatives, sometimes incorporating mementos of the places where they were stationed. Women back on the home front also bought a wide variety of charms for themselves, as there were few things to buy with the good money they were earning in wartime factory jobs. As a result, many bracelets from this era have odd combinations of themes, with tanks sidling up to engraved hearts, Scottie dogs (President Roosevelt’s pup) and rotary beaters!

In the post-war era of U.S. prosperity, charm bracelets grew in popularity, with new charms depicting middle class icons such as tract houses, televisions, record players and even toilets! Companies offered charms as premiums to their customers; these included not only consumer products such as PET milk cans, hit records, and Mister Peanut, but items like valves and tractors. Musical instruments and western themed charms were also popular.

Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor were photographed with charm bracelets on and off screen. U.S. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower famously had a bracelet filled with charms representing milestone’s in her husband’s illustrious military career, with the 21st charm being a gold key to the White House from 1953. By 1956, it was estimated that half of American women owned a charm bracelet.

Many charms from the mid-1950s on are markedly shinier than those from the 1930s and 1940s, because  silver in this era was plated with rhodium, an expensive metal that prevented tarnishing. As the decade advanced, charms grew larger and sometimes gaudily bejeweled with rhinestones. Space travel charms, such as globes, astronauts, and space capsules began to appear.

In the 1960s, British charms also became fashionable.  These were three dimensional and often movable, with hidden features such as swans that opened to reveal ballerinas, hens on nests with chicks underneath, and hinged beetles with The Beatles tucked inside. But the rise of charm bracelet popularity in Britain coincided with social upheaval in the U.S. Though a few new charm themes emerged (such as peace signs), the interest in charms waned here and many domestic charm manufacturers went bankrupt in the decade that followed.

Vintage charms, and to a lesser extent, vintage charm bracelets, re-emerged as collectibles in the past two decades. At the same time, a new type of charm bracelet, with theme-shaped “sliding” beads strung onto customized chains (Pandora charms are an example), became a trendy fashion accessory.

Rising silver prices and a depressed national economy have led to more “old-fashioned” charms being melted as scrap. Charmed Lives aims to save and re-purpose as many of these as we can for 21st century living!

 

* If you’d like more information about the history of charms and charm bracelets, the definitive resource, which served as primary source for this web page, is “Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide” by Joanne Schwartz, published by Schiffer Publishing in 2007.