The History of Charms and Charm Bracelets
Neolithic Era – Circa 4500 to 2300 BC
Charms have been enchanting people from the first time Neolithic man selected an unusual piece of bone, shell, stone, wood or a fashioned piece of clay and placed it on a leather thong. Elaborate bracelets from this time period have been discovered in various archeological sites throughout the world. The exact purpose that such jewellery served is speculative, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that such items were used as charm bracelets in the modern sense, namely to act as a form of protection against unknown negative forces or to bring good fortune.
Nassarius kraussianus shells that have been perforated to be strung into beads. They are thought to be some of the oldest known man made jewellery. They were discovered in a cave in Blombos, South Africa, and date back to the Middle Stone Age, some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago
Bronze Age – Circa 2300 to 700 BC
Frequently referred to as Amulets or Talisman, the wearing of charms has been associated with magic, mystique, protection, spirituality and love. From this time period forward, as different cultures came of age, it was not long before they were fashioning natural materials into representative figures and shapes to wear as adornments. This would include objects carried by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Hittites and other early cultures. Jewellery making had became more sophisticated along with the materials that were used. Early jewellery charms were made of lapis lazuli, rock crystal, and other semi-precious stones and were often inscribed with small designs associated with special powers. The Babylonians are believed to be the first people to wear charms on charm bracelets from around 700 BC.
A Celtic bronze phallos amulet or pendant circa 1000BC
Which spanned both of these time periods, saw elaborate jewellery made from precious stones and metals used to adorn the Pharaohs and the wealthy. Here the first recognizable jewellery charms and charm pendants appeared as early as 3000 BC adorning elaborate head and neck pieces. Like most civilisations at this time, the people of ancient Egypt only lived for 30 to 35 years. With such a limited life span they focused on preparing for a prosperous life after death. Jewellery played a significant role in this process with charms and bracelets used to ward off evil spirits, enhance fertility, and as an indication of status and wealth. More importantly though, they were used as a signal to help the Gods guide the wearer and their possessions to their proper status in the afterlife, whilst providing protection and continued prosperity until the end of this journey. The scarab amulet was one such charm that signified renewal and regeneration. Wearers would hold the scarab dear as a protective charm that could ensure their ability to pass successfully into the afterlife. Other Egyptian Charms or symbols, such as the Ankh, representing the force or key of life, or the Eye of Horus, which protected the wearer in life and the afterlife, were also preferred talismans.
A scarab amulet made out of Egyptian faience – a glass like material common in ancient Egypt. The scarab was associated with the sun god Ra and were seen as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Click the scarab to see a selection of Egyptian themed charms
Roman Empire – Circa 750 BC to 475 AD
The most clearly documented use of an amulet or charm used as a means of a symbol of one’s own life was in the Roman Empire, where early Christians would use the ‘ichthys’ or fish charm to discretely identify themselves as follows of Christ. The fish symbolised the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus, on the shores of the Jordan River. It is argued that various groups within the Roman Empire, which was, at that time, predominantly Jewish, wore the symbol covertly and would reveal the religious charm when in the presence of other Christians in order to confirm their allegiance to the same religious order. These Christians needed to be able to hide their religion, while at the same time, be able to reveal it to others within this secret order. Within the Roman Empire, to be anything other than Jewish was judged heretic and blasphemous. Around the same time Jewish scholars would write passages from Jewish law on slithers of parchment and place them into small gold amulets to be worn around their necks. This act of reverence signified that that the law was close to their hearts and in turn its teachings could be easily absorbed.
Middle Ages – 1066 to 1485
English Kings, Queens and knights used amulets and charms as protection. This period was renowned for its belief in witchcraft and wizardry and so unsurprisingly, much of the population were concerned with the magic and mayhem that were supposed to be delivered to them by their enemies and foes. Locked away in the security of their medieval castles the Kings and Queens wore amulets in the form of necklaces and belts to keep enemies at bay and their fortresses safe from attack. In battle, knights wore amulets to keep from harm and they also placed charms on their belts to represent their family origin, political allegiance or standing, and their profession. They hoped that the donning of charms, along with prayer and incantation, would bring the support of God to their battles.
A medieval copper-alloy pendant
European Renaissance – 1300 to 1600
In this age of learning the wearing of lucky charms and amulets amongst the wealthy and influential faded as the Enlightenment, books and science slowly replaced the superstition and magic of the past. Charms were seen as the remnants of primitive superstition. For members of the nobility visual indications of status and wealth remained important, so birthstones and gems grew in popularity. The masses, with no access to means or education, continued to use amulets and charms but they were to became associated with fear and superstition.
Industrial Revolution – 1750 to 1900
Leading up to the industrial revolution, only wealthy and affluent citizens had the means to afford the custom made jewellery and charms available at the time. However, the machine age introduced the technology to mine precious metals and mass produce charms into affordable jewellery for the growing middle class. This class now had the opportunity to own and wear articles of beauty that had previously been out of reach to them financially. This socio-economic and cultural shift began in Britain and spread to the rest of Europe and the United States.
Victorian Era – 1837 to 1901
Queen Victoria proved to be the champion of beads and jewellery charms when her personal interest in jewellery started the next significant phase of charm wearing. She was one of the most popular monarchs of all time, and her likes and dislikes were followed and copied by the British gentility, as well as the nobility across Europe.
The Queen’s jewellery charms were usually gold and consisted of items connected to her family and her beloved husband Albert. They were designed to hold photographs or locks of hair. It was at this point that charms crossed over into the world of fashion. Small lockets, glass beads and family crests were hung from bracelets, necklaces, and watch chains, and this became the norm throughout Europe and across the British Empire. When her beloved Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria even made mourning charms popular with lockets of hair from the deceased, miniature portraits, and charm bracelets intricately carved from jet. In 1889 Tiffany & Co launched their first charm bracelet at the Paris Exposition. It was a chain link charm bracelet with a single dangling heart pendant and as expected it proved very popular.
1920 to 1930s
This period of counter culture in the decorative arts brought another wave of innovation to the world of charms and charm jewellery, as the allure of platinum and diamonds brought a new level of simplicity and elegance, whilst challenging the austerity of Victorian society. These jewellery charms were decorated using fine art and were angular and geometric in shape.
1945 to 1950
At the close of the Second World War soldiers returning from the various fronts wanted to take home small and easily packed items. They purchased handmade trinkets and souvenirs as gifts for their sweethearts, and their families at home. Local craftsmen would carve or shape wood or metal into scaled down replicas of items common to the locale. Alongside these locally made novelty charms, soldiers would still have their dog tags along with more personal reminders of fallen comrades, cities they had helped to liberate, and reminders of the experience of war itself. Such items seemed to encapsulate moments from the soldiers’ time away and as such jewellery charms became hugely popular as a means of capturing emotion and personal memories. Jewellers in Europe and America, quickly picked up on this trend and began to create Sterling Silver Charms for all occasions.
In time this led to the inclusion of small celluloid or acrylic charms in packets of sweets, cereal packets and gumball machines which children collected and used to adorn beaded chain and string necklaces. These would include army figures, jungle animals, pets, sailing ships, and sports figures. These trinkets began life as early as the 1920s in Japan, before becoming popular in America after the war. In time more commercial figures, common to the films and comics of the time, became popular. These included Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Orphan Annie, and Popeye to name but a few.
1950s to 1970s
In the 1950s and 60s charm bracelets were the must have item of jewellery for girls and young women. By now their significance had changed again to reflect rites of passage, such as 16th and 18th birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, the arrival of children, Travel, as well as horoscopes and birthstones. Each significant event in their lives would be marked with an individual charm added to a bracelet or chain. In many upper class social circles in the United States and abroad, it became customary for a young woman to be given a starter charm bracelet as she neared age of 13. She would then be periodically gifted additional dangling gold charms or sterling silver charms to mark these important occasions, Celebrations and interests throughout her life. The nature of these modern charm bracelets meant that new charms could be added and old ones removed and kept. This meant that girls and women were able to change facets of their charm bracelets on a daily basis to express their own mood or thoughts that day. Quite often, charm bracelets would be passed from mother to daughter, either as a new gift or passing it on as a family heirloom. The daughter would then add her own jewellery charms to the bracelet overtime.
This practice continued up until the 1970s when changes in fashion and music saw bare gold chains become the norm and the link was broken. Charm bracelets started to appear in antique and flea markets as old estate jewellery was discarded in favour of new bolder jewellery fashions. Danish Troll beads kept the flame alive in Europe and may well have been the original starting point for todays personalised jewellery.
1990s to date
The interest in antiques and collectables in the1990s, spurred on by an economic boom and numerous television programmes, drove demand for vintage charms and bracelets. Mechanical charms or opening charms were particularly sought after as collectors harkened back to times of quality craftsmanship.
Although the reasons, materials, and designs for charms have changed over the centuries, the concept itself has never gone out of style even to the present day. From 2001 onwards, the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel brought the glamour back to the charm bracelet market bringing new designs, which were then picked up across all price ranges. Chanel made Russian doll charm bracelets, icon charm bracelets, and pirate charm bracelets – capitalising on the box office success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Even more recently Pandora Jewellery charm bracelets have become a worldwide phenomenon and continue to increase in popularity. Founded in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1982 by Per Enevoldsen and his wife Winnie, they launched their first Pandora bracelet in 1999, which eventually became wildly popular across Europe before marketing their charms and bracelets in North America in 2002. Led by America, Seasonal Charms continue to grow in popularity, including Easter charms, Halloween charms, and of course Christmas charms.
A Patricia Cohen article from the New York Times entitled Telling the Human Story, In Beads as Well as Words, discusses the role of beads and other archaeological found objects and their significance to humanities origins.
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