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Charm School

The history of modern-day charms dates back to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Known for her elaborate collection of jewels and tiaras, Queen Victoria was also known for being a true romantic and had the sentimental jewelry to prove it. The Queen wore miniature portraits of her nine children on a gold bracelet and a miniature portrait of her beloved Prince Albert on a different pearl bracelet. This collection of “personal charms” began a trend that has never gone out of style.

“In the early Victorian Era, charm jewelry was about who it represented,” says Melanie Joiner, appraiser for Stuart Kingston Jewelers in Wilmington, Del. “It was about honoring a family member or mourning a loved one.” Joiner explains that most charms contained either a loved one’s photo or a lock of hair. These charms were displayed on “slide” or bangle bracelets. Eventually the charms were displayed on gold or silver bracelets or chains as they are today.
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In addition to charms honoring loved ones, charms representing travel destinations became popular in the 1940s with the onset of World War II. As Amy Elliot explains in her book A Passion for Charms, when US soldiers returned home from overseas, they often brought their mothers, girlfriends, or wives trinkets, quite often charms, which represented where they had been.

In the “50s and “60s, charms became less about other people and more about the wearer. Whimsical charms representing hobbies such as gardening and cooking were often mixed in with charms marking the birth of a child or a special anniversary.

According to Elliot, charm bracelets became less popular in the late “60s, although true collectors held on to their bracelets, quietly collecting charms at estate sales, or while traveling. The bracelets were passed on from one generation to the next.

Today, charms are trendy again. Jewelry companies like Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and even Juicy Couture offer everything from very simple charms, like a sterling silver cross, to very elaborate charms, like a panther covered in diamonds with emerald eyes and an onyx nose and collar.

Some collectors mix new charms in with charms their mothers or grandmothers wore. The idea is to create a bracelet or necklace laden with stories and personal associations. Many collectors will get their daughters or granddaughters started by purchasing them a bracelet and then giving them charms over the years to add to their bracelet.

Collectors are not typically in the business of collecting charms to create monetary value. Even vintage charms aren’t worth much more than their gold weight. As Joiner explains, unless the charm is from a noteworthy and high-profile family, such as British royalty, and is authenticated (not a replica), there is no serious monetary value. The real value, she explains, is in the sentiment. Creating a charm bracelet over a lifetime, each with its own story and emotional significance, is, well, priceless.

Erica Salmon

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