For the Greeks, Romans and Babylonians, charms were reassuringly protective. Today, they reinforce our memories, and as well as being traditional keepsakes marking milestones and emotions they can be worn with humour, wit and style.

According to author and historian Deborah Alun-Jones in her book “Charming: The Magic of Charm Jewelry”, co-authored with John Ayton, these wide-reaching little jewels offer a “band of identity”, reflecting the personality of the wearer, and collections of charms “tell the story of a lifetime”.

Alun-Jones notes how one of Elizabeth Taylor’s first pieces – and a favourite – in her huge jewellery collection was a 20-charm bracelet, with many of the pieces signifying key moments in the actor’s storied career. Also forming a historical aide-mémoire was Marlene Dietrich’s quirky poker-chip charm, gifted by her lover Frank Sinatra as an emblem of their shared passion: gambling.

The significance of the charm, however, extends a lot further back than Hollywood’s heated love affairs, and sometimes with an added note of the macabre. “The charm has roots in being a talisman, offering protection to the wearer in early civilisations including the Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians, but it was really in the 19th century you see them come to prominence,” says Arabella Hiscox, Specialist, Christie’s Jewellery Department. During Victorian times, sentimental and mourning jewellery became the fashion, popularised by Queen Victoria, who wore a bracelet of enamel heart charms containing a lock of hair from each child. When Prince Albert died, Victoria wore bracelets with mourning charms in black. “Locks of hair were popular in sentimental and mourning jewellery as it was believed to have a sacred and immortal quality, containing the spirit of the person even after their body was gone,” adds Hiscox. “Towards the end of the 19th century, as people moved away from mourning jewellery, charms became more light-hearted, novelty pieces of jewellery.”

This said, some of the auction house’s more significant charm sales include pieces redolent of the silver screen, such as Taylor’s band of 20 charms, which sold as part of “The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor” auction in 2011. While a rare enamel and gold Cartier/Disney collaboration commemorating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came to auction earlier this year, preceded in 2020 by a 1940s Cartier/Disney bracelet featuring a string of characters from the 1940 film “Pinocchio”. Art deco Cartier pieces are some of the most enduringly popular collector charms today.

A 20-piece charm bracelet belonging to Elizabeth Taylor, auctioned by Christie's in 2011, realising US$326,500. 

Charms bracelets – and let’s not forget necklaces – now represent one of the most versatile elements of anyone’s jewellery box: as well as great conversation openers, they can be affordable and excellent “starter” pieces for any collector, marking them out as multi-generational. After all, what child doesn’t fall in love with the wonder of a miniature world in jewellery form? They are playful for all ages. Stylist Susanna Cohen of Style Curators is constantly drawn to the jaunty designs of charms: they are “witty and fun and so personal. Each one is unique and a real style signifier of the person who wears it. I am in love with Loquet London’s large charm bracelets. My favourite is the huge four-leafed clover with crenelated petals, which I would also wear on a necklace.” And there is one rule she abides by: “They should be large and jangly and as crowded with charms as possible.”

'They should be large and jangly and as crowded with charms as possible.'

The idea of charm as protector still runs deep. Jewellery retailer Astley Clarke’s biggest seller is their Evil Eye piece. “I think post-pandemic there has been a feeling of wanting a greater level of protection…,” says Scott Thomson, CEO of Astley Clarke. “For us, charms represent the Byzantine era of an identifiable talisman that spans religion, geography and history.”

Theo Fennell, the master of gem-emblazoned playfulness thinks they can bring some levity to the jewellery box. “They are one of the few presents that are allowed to be as sentimental and kitsch as you like without jangling the sensitivities of good taste,” he says. “Generally, the cuter and more obvious, the more charming, but they should still be stylish and beautifully made. I have always tried to add an in-joke or a bit of mystery to the ones we have made.” His designs include barn owls, lions and devils crafted with ruby eyes (Lucifers are far more popular than angels).

'I think for most people they represent a series of souvenirs, of travel, of an affair, a passage or maybe the entirety of their life…'

For Fennell, they are very much a memento of his familial life. “I made charms for my daughters as they grew up, reflecting their changing passions and the fads of the time, so their favourite toys and books through to cameras and Walkmans in miniature, so just a modern imagining of a charm bracelet and a scrapbook of their youth,” he says. “I think for most people they represent a series of souvenirs, of travel, of an affair, a passage or maybe the entirety of their life and [by] adding vintage charms from earlier generations an even longer journey. I think they are one of the few personal pieces of jewellery that even people who are afraid to show their individuality in jewellery are prepared to be original with.” Fennell notes that the beauty of them is how the collection evolves and isn’t fixed. “They can always be changed if a lover falls out of favour or the wearer’s tastes change,” he adds, mischievously.

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