For thousands of years, people have worn decorative items for protection against evil or to bring luck and prosperity to the owner. While these ancient charms and amulets are still eagerly sought after by collectors, later examples from the Victorian and Twentieth Century are just as appealing. Wearing, sharing and collecting charms continues to be a popular pastime, and the story of charm bracelets is filled with mystery, magic and style.
Amulets were made specifically to keep away curses and ill wishes from the wearer. In ancient Egypt, an amulet could be worn to protect against an attack by the great river horse, also known as a hippo. If the amulet was carved out of a particular stone, that in itself might provide even great security for the wearer, who might choose a green stone like beryl for prosperity (the green represented vegetation and regrowth) or a red stone like carnelian (the red represented blood and life) for safety from a serpent's deadly bite.
Amulets were worn as jewelry, but also tucked within the mummy wrappings. This ensured that the dead would have protection in the next world. Charms, on the other hand, were made to confer good luck on the wearer, and were often worn on strings around the neck.
The Romans also loved the lure of charms, and wore them on rings, bracelets and necklaces. Ancient examples seem to indicate that the charms and amulets were collected at different times, and then added to necklace or bracelet, much as we do today.
- Sometimes ancient goddesses and gods were depicted in charms, offering good luck as well as their power to the wearer. Certain patterns also conferred luck.
- The Romans believed in the power of fertility, so charms often represented male and female reproductive organs and were worn by people of all ranks and classes.
In the Mideast, the hamsa, or hand of Fatima (also called the hand of Mary or Miriam), was both a charm (bringing prosperity) and an amulet (keeping away the evil eye.) Hamsas were worn on necklaces or bracelets and were particularly important to mothers, who gave their children the symbol as protection.
The Dark Ages and Beyond
Examples of charms as religious symbols have been found from the Dark Ages or early Christian era (when charms were written on paper and placed next to the wearer's body), the Viking period and later through the Renaissance and after.
From Queen Victoria to Vintage Charms
Charms had a renaissance, so to speak, when Queen Victoria set the style in the late 19th century. Victoria was a devoted wife to Prince Albert, and together they raised 9 children. Albert started a tradition of giving Victoria a heart charm at the birth of each child. The charms were also lockets, and held strands of hair from each infant. A second charm bracelet had charms which held a photograph of Albert, and were enameled with images of crosses, and decorated with diamonds and inscriptions. Albert died at 42, and Victoria outlived him by 40 years. She instructed that the charm bracelet never be worn by anyone else.
Charm bracelets grew in popularity during the 20th century. Charms were brought home to wives and girlfriends by returning soldiers. New materials were used for bracelets, including platinum, celluloid and precious stones.
- The most popular celluloid charms were probably the Cracker Jack prizes in the 1930s and 40s. Each box of Cracker Jack came with a small prize, many of them charms in the shape of animals, comic strip characters, Wild West themes and sports.
- In the 1920s and 30s, charm bracelets became works of art for wrists fortunate enough to have wealthy owners. Art Deco charm bracelets were often over-the-top, made from gold, pavé diamonds and rubies. Christie's auction house, for example, sold a gem-encrusted beauty with charms depicting an airplane, Felix the Cat, a sailor and a dog (like the Cracker Jack mascot!) and other delights.
- By the 1960s, charm bracelets were worn by film stars, who flaunted their style and wealth, and the bracelets took off in popularity. Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her love of charms, and she had several bracelets in her collection -- all of gold and diamonds, of course.
- Teens began to wear bracelets displaying charms of popular singers, cartoons and culture; Elvis Presley, of course, was one of the most popular bracelet stars. Bracelets were often given as gifts for birthdays or other important events, introducing the wearer to the world of charm collecting.
- In Mexico, milagro, or "miracle" charms were also added to bracelets, and represented gratitude to saints for their help.
Collecting Charms and Bracelets
Charm bracelets are back and highly collectible with prices ranging from a few dollars for a vintage charm to thousands for gold and jewel-encrusted examples. Whether you buy an entire bracelet and charm collection, or assemble your own bracelet charm-by-charm, you may want to consider the following:
- Charms come in several types. There are lockets (like Queen Victoria's) which open to reveal a picture or keepsake. There are mechanicals, charms which have moving parts or open to reveal a surprise. When buying these, be certain that the hinges work and the charm is complete (not missing sections or pieces).
- Sterling silver charm bracelets were very popular from Victorian times on. In general, English charms and bracelets will have hallmarks stamped somewhere on the piece, indicating the year and place of manufacture. American pieces should have markings indicated "ss" or sterling silver. Mexican charms and bracelets will have marks indicating the purity of the silver. Native American silver (Navajo, Zuni) does not have to be marked under law. Be sure you are paying for silver -- look for the markings. In the case of Native American silverwork, know your dealer.
- Vintage and antique gold charms are very expensive, and should be stamped with 14k or 18k to mark the gold's purity. Prices for complete bracelets often ascend into the thousands of dollars.
- Stanhope charms are in a class by themselves. The charm has an opening with a lens, through which you can view a microphotograph, and their history goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. When purchasing a Stanhope, make sure the lens is perfect.
- Celluloid charms resemble hard plastic and were often painted. Expect some wear on the charms, but the paint is important, and most of it should be there.
- Pot metal (a tin and lead alloy) was used for inexpensive charms. Plated metal can sometimes fool you into thinking it's silver. These charms often lack the detail found in more expensive examples.
Antique charm bracelets come in all shapes and sizes, and some can hold dozens of charms. Antique sterling silver examples start at $70 and with the charms, the cost can rise to hundreds of dollars.
Where to Buy
Charm subjects are nearly endless, and reflect everything from technology (airplanes and telephones) to cancan dancers with moveable legs. The hunt is just as fun as finding the perfect charm. Flea markets, antiques malls and retro shops will all have charms and bracelets for sale. Etsy.com has dealers who sell vintage and antique charms, but you have to move fast; great old charms sell quickly.
For lovely examples, check online at these shops, which include overseas offerings:
- True Vintage Jewellery has an amazing selection of older charms, including silver and gold. Prices begin around $50 and go up from there, and they guarantee age. The nine-carat gold moving scarecrow is delightful and lists for approximately $225.
- Jennifer Lynn's Timeless Jewelry has antique and vintage charms and bracelets, including a Charlie McCarthy example for $85.
Collecting charms is challenging and fun. The tiny trinkets are a window to the past, and let you see into the loves, lives and pastimes of ladies long gone. Start your collection of antique and vintage charms, and keep your own story close at hand.