What is a charm? Little carvings of wood, bone, seashells or other natural items originated as talismans to disarm evil spirits or keep the favor of the gods. The first known charms, dating back 75,000 to 100,000 years, were sea shells strung as beads discovered in a cave in South Africa. Most prehistoric charms were worn as necklaces or carried in pouches attached to clothing. The Babylonians, who live around 700 BC, are believed to be the first people to wear charms on charm bracelets.
The Egyptians were big on charms to symbolize good luck, love and spiritual forces. The pharaohs believed that they would come with them into the afterlife to ward off evil spirits and enhance fertility. (Author’s Note: Worrying about your sexual prowess in the afterlife is way beyond creepy and so like a man.) They were also an indication of status and wealth. The scarab amulet had a distinctive importance as it was the charm that signified renewal and regeneration, as anyone who’s seen a Mummy movie can tell you.
Charms also became a way to secretly convey a common bond such as religion or culture. Christians wore fish charms hidden underneath their garments while Jews wore passages from Talmudic law in a gold charm. During the Dark Ages, individuals wore charms to identify their family origin or to denote their alliance to a specific ruler, political party, or religion.
Flash forward to the Middle Ages where knights wore charms on their belts to identify their status and ancestry. All throughout the sixteenth century talismans would frequently be carried into battle to ward off evil and bring good luck
Queen Victoria as Jewelry Designer
It was Queen Victoria who shoved charms into the world of fashion and is credited with popularizing the charm bracelet as we now know it. When Prince Albert died, she created mourning charm bracelets. Victoria's preference was for gemstone charms and lockets containing the hair (yuck) or tiny photographs of loved ones (better.) She even had charms created to give to her family and friends, most of whom were European nobility. The popularity of charm bracelets spread throughout the royal houses and filtered down to the commoners and then across the Atlantic. Tiffany made its first version of a charm bracelet with a tiny heart in 1889. It was a big hit. Different iterations of flowers, birds, and animals quickly followed.
20th Century and Beyond Charms
By the1930s more commercial figures such as Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop became popular. Strangely enough, World War II increased charm bracelets’ popularity. Soldiers returning stateside wanted trinkets and souvenirs as gifts for the girls back home. Local artisans were smart enough to jump into a new market and began to craft metal into scaled down replicas of local items such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or a tiny plane for a pilot’s sweetheart or anchor for a sailor’s.
In the 1950s charms took another turn, reflecting girls’ rites of passage. A girl in a ballet recital might get tiny ballet shoes. A cowgirl might have a horse or a Stetson hat. Although modern charms have lost the magical connotations, they’re still popular. Recently, companies such as Pandora have boosted interest. 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. Pandora charms are round and beadlike, but like others in the past offer the ability to customize to one's taste. Charms from such companies and independent jewelers offer a wide range that reflects modern girls’ more varied interests. While ballet shoes are still around, you’ll also find tiny space shuttles, robots, and laptops.