A brief history of charm jewellery

Updated: Oct 2


Charm bracelets and necklaces are, without doubt, a jewellery classic. A style that’s endured over the years in different forms, the history of charm jewellery is a long one. In fact there’s strong evidence to show that the wearing of charms dates back thousands of years to when our ancestors were pondering the age old question of how to best accessorise your animal skins.


Archaeological digs have uncovered quite intricate designs at many sites and early charms included fragments of shell, bone, teeth, berries and clay beads strung onto strips of leather. Through the ages and as jewellery production became more sophisticated, more elaborate designs emerged incorporating metals and semi-precious stones.


It is not known what this early jewellery signified, but it is thought that it may well have been worn in the belief that it would protect the wearer from harm or bring then good luck. For many civilisations, the wearing of charms was seen as an important way of warding off evil spirits.



Indeed, the Ancient Egyptians wore amulets for protection during life as well as burying them with their dead and each one carried a very specific meaning. There are some fabulous examples (like those pictured above) on New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art website with further details about how they might have been used.


In the pre-Christian Roman Empire, followers of Christ came to use ichthys charms to discretely alert others to their faith and avoid persecution and possibly death. From the Greek for fish, the ichthys symbol represented Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes and reflected the belief that his disciples were ‘fishers of men’.


Charm wearing as protection continued throughout the Middle Ages, as Medieval Knights wore talismans to keep them safe in battle, but fell out of favour again post-Enlightenment, due to an association with ‘unscientific’ and superstitious beliefs.



It was Queen Victoria who reignited an interest in charm jewellery amongst the general public. Only the richest Victorians could afford to wear such elaborate and expensive jewellery and so the wearing of charms became both a signifier of wealth and, with Victoria’s patronage, a fashion statement in itself.


The beautiful charm bracelet pictured above (image via the Royal Collection Trust) was given to the Queen by Prince Albert following the birth of her eldest daughter, with an additional charm added for each subsequent child. Made from gold, it features 9 vibrant enamelled heart-shaped lockets, each one carrying an inscription of the child’s name and date of birth and a lock of their hair.


Victoria’s love of this style marked a change in the meaning of charm wearing. Where it had once signified protection and the bringing of good luck, it was now about marking big life events and remembering loved ones.


This continued with the resurgence in popularity of charms as soldiers turned home from World War II, bringing with them souvenirs and trinkets from their travels. Over time, charm bracelets became a way of marking places you’d been, hobbies and interests and key moments – anniversaries, birthdays, graduation and so on. Indeed, the notion that charms are something to be collected to remind you of happy memories and significant moments in your life is much more in keeping with our current take on charm jewellery.


Tiffany & Co capitalised on the resurgence in popularity with it’s now iconic chain and key ring heart design which launched in 1969 and still remains a classic take on the charm bracelet.



I’ve always loved charm jewellery, ever since being given a plated brass bracelet when I was a child. Sadly not much remains of the original piece today, but I still have a couple of the charms, including the old fashioned gramophone record in the photo above.


Inspired by my childhood bracelet, I felt that this enduring style deserved a modern update. My charm bracelet and necklace designs (available in silver and gold plate) incorporate five little hand carved and cast charms with plenty of space for you to add your own to the collection.


I’d love to know if you’re a charm jewellery fan too…Have you collected any charms over the years? What’s your favourite and why? Do come and share with me below…


References:

The History of Charms & Charm Bracelets, www.bigbeadlittlebead.com

What is the Origin of the Christian Fish Symbol? www.christianitytoday.com

Royal Collection Trust https://www.rct.uk/collection/65293/bracelet


Elin Horgan is a designer & maker of beautifully simple handmade jewellery, crafted from sustainable materials in her Bristol studio.

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