Trinket to Talisman – Contemporary Charms

Jewelry plays an ancient and well-documented role in broadcasting social status, but charm bracelets, known to almost all American women and girls since at least the 1940s, are also distantly related to traditional charms or amulets, carried for millennia to protect the wearers avert danger, or ensure good fortune. Mesopotamian amulet seals date from the 5th millennium.

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By Vicki HalperMore from this author

"I don't keep a journal," says Marge Levy, former director of the Pilchuck Glass School . "My life is recorded in charm bracelets." [1] We are sitting before her collection of 102 bracelets, some bought complete, but many assembled by Levy with charms collected abroad to represent the trips that mark her history. There are also two bracelets from her youth. One she received from her parents in 1948, about the time she started school. It contains some personal references (her first tooth, a Jewish star, a classroom bell, a bicycle), but also other charms (a coffee pot, a lantern) chosen by her parents for whimsy or sheer delight. When Levy was eight years old, her father's gold baby ring was added to the bracelet, and it remains her favorite charm among the 2000 or so in her possession.

When Levy turned 16, she received a new bracelet with a large gold disk commemorating the day. Other gold charms marking her confirmation, graduation from high school, and college art major followed as she became a young adult. When her mother died, Levy removed a heart-shaped charm from her parent's bracelet and added it to hers. It is engraved on the back, "To Elaine from Maurice, 1957." [2]

Later kin to this charm collector arc depicted in Jeffrey Eugenics' novel Middlesex. Narrator Calliope Stephan ides describes the hierarchy of a private girls' school in the early 1970s. At the bottom are the Kilt Pins "like the devices that held our tartans together [they were] unremarkable, dull, but necessary in their way." At the top are the Charm Bracelets.

From the slender wrists of these girls, tiny silver charms were chiming together. It was the ringing of tiny tennis rackets against tiny snow skis, of miniature Eiffel Towers against half-inch ballerinas on point …. One girl held out her wrist to her friends, like a lady recommending a perfume. Her father had just returned from a business trip, bringing her back this latest present. The Charm Bracelets: they were the rulers of my new school. [3]

Chris Irick, Moving Bracelet, 2003
Sterling silver, 7 1/2 x 1 x 1/4″

Jewelry plays an ancient and well-documented role in broadcasting social status, but charm bracelets, known to almost all American women and girls since at least the 1940s, are also distantly related to traditional charms or amulets, carried for millennia to protect the wearers avert danger, or ensure good fortune. Mesopotamian amulet seals date from the 5th millennium BCE; Egyptian scarabs date from about 3000 BCE; ancient Greeks and Romans wore images of Medusa to destroy evil powers and dogs' teeth to ward off illness; medieval Christians wore crosses to tame the devil; and Muslims wore Koranic texts in leather cases.[4] A twentieth-century warrior's shirt from Ghana is covered with such amulets, each sewn into a case and separately attached to the garment. The great collector Katherine White described the contents of the packets on a similar shirt: "Passages from the Koran, magic leopards' teeth, bells, a string heart, and a shriveled sheep's vitals… They say, dressed in such, a Ghanaian can face a machine gun in total safety." [5]

Sakurako Shimizu, Charm Bracelet Brooch, 2003
Rubber, 10 x 8″

The contents of each packet on warriors' and hunters' shirts traditionally remain a closely guarded secret, but the sheer number of them signals a life "dedicated to acquiring new knowledge." Hunters also give amulets to professional bards or praise singers who attach them to the shirts they wear when called upon to "teach, explain, and recall historical personalities and events." [6] This marking of experience accumulated over time and link to oral history traditions is a characteristic shared by many Western charm bracelets, particularly those that sequentially honor life events such as graduations and childbirth, or that commemorate a soldier's experience in ornaments sent from the front to adorn bracelets of loved ones at home, a subcategory of bracelet common during World War II. Charm bracelets are usually worn on special occasions, like the hunters' shirts, and become the incentive for telling the tale of the bracelet's owner or beloved.

When Gail Brown asked jewelers to create a piece for the 2003 exhibition, Charmed Lives: jewelry as Memento, at Seattle's Facere Jewelry Art gallery, her role was curator-as-muse. "I wanted to present an idea that would send people off on adventures. I like to be the instigator for people to make something new," she remarked. She mailed artists an excerpted definition of "charm" from the Oxford English Dictionary that included references to spells, amulets, allure, attractiveness, and trinkets. The potency and breadth of her request is clear from the response of the jewelers, 55 of whom consented to do new pieces for the exhibition, many of which are vastly different from their usual work.

sante War Shirt
Asante War Shirt, Ghana 20th century
Cloth, leather, twine, cowry shells, amulets
35 1/16 x 42 5/16″
Collection Seattle Art Museum
Photo: Paul Macapia

The conventional format of the charm bracelet, such as those in Marge Levy's collection, is condensed into an urbracelet by Sakurako Shimizu in her monochromatic brooch. Here the visual essentials - the chain and pendent disks - are presented as a blank slate. This silhouette of a bracelet, whose shape was taken from a photocopy of a real piece and painstakingly sawn from flooring material, is rigorously impersonal. It represents every bracelet, not my bracelet; the idea of a bracelet, not the real thing. If Shimizu had made shadows of real charms instead of simple disks, "people would question why I used the flower or the heart," she says. Instead the only question is Platonic: how do we know that a chair is a chair or a charm bracelet a charm bracelet?

In a departure from the traditional dangles, Chris Irick's charms are printed on sterling rectangles and hinged to each other. "I don't like noisy jewelry," she comments, in likely sympathy with the famous symphony conductor who once asked ladies to check their charm bracelets along with their coats. [7] Irick's Moving Bracelet refers to popular pieces in which enameled silhouettes of states of the Union , usually locations the weaver had visited, are linked to a chain. Each of Irick's states has a dot denoting a city she once called home and an engraved text on the back giving the dates of her residence. When asked about this minimalist timeline, Irick says, "When I think of moving I become emotionally detached because we did this so much, sometimes once a year Still, all those moves shaped the person I am now." One day someone, following a time-honored ritual of children with their mother's charms, will sit with the artist and ask her about each move ("and then?" "and then?") and Irick will fill in the blacks.

Instead of ordering her mementos chronologically along the length of a chain, Karen McCreary seems to have casually tossed them into a clear resin container. We need to seek out the story, hers or our own, which she promises is there, starting with a miniature girl in a prom dress. Between the early 1970s and 1980s, McCreary worked on and off for commercial makers of charms. At Abart Manufacturing she did benchwork on silver charms called "mechanicals" that have moving parts-a shoe, for example, which opens to reveal the old lady who lives inside. She also made wax models for special orders, such as beer promotions. Later she worked at Cooper & Schuber, and remembers hand-painting the reels of cherries that fit into their diminutive slot machine. She owns a bracelet filled with dozens of Abart charms and a box of charms dating from the 1940s to the 1960s that a former boss passed on to her as mementos of their shared career.

"I don't think of charm bracelets as being minimal," McCreary says. She and other minimalists in Charmed Lives struggled to reconcile their usual style ("I am drawn to the non-objective work of light and space artists like Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin") with the maximalist tradition they were asked to join. McCreary returned to cast resin with inclusions, a technique she had previously used to create abstract, translucent bracelets. By doing this she got both worlds at once-a complex, layered narrative in a smooth, machined casing.

sante War Shirt
Karen McCreary, Slice of Charmed Life, 2003
Mixed media in cast resin
3 1/2 x 4 x 1″

The charms of youth are insignificant and frivolous, Robert Ebendorf seems to suggest in his bracelet for the aging. Flea market trinkets (a wagon, a sandal, a cowboy hat) are dwarfed by the dominating rusty and bent nails of "life and its challenges" that the artist wrenches from decaying boards. The gold squiggles ("the golden years?" Ebendorf wonders) that he fabricated and attached to the bracelet are fireflies to these menacing spikes. Get a tetanus shot before you put it on; don't wear white; watch your sweater. The grandparent who gives this bracelet demands to be honored as he is crusty, gnarled, fragile, humorous, and still dangerous.

Perhaps Sonya Clark's ancestors would better suit? She did, after all, think of her Trinidad grandparents when she read the phrase "charmed lives." She wasn't glossing over their travails, but acknowledging their influence: "by their lives my life is charmed." Thinking of lockets, she placed their faces around her neck. One set of portraits faces the public and two other identical sets face her heart in "endearing, secretive, protectiveness." The beading in Remembered Lives is a metaphor for lineage: "string one to the next, to the next, to the next", Clark comments. The branching pendant refers to genealogical roots. The white and silver color of the beads boners age in the Yoruba tradition; the black beads refer to the unknown. Clark is a praise singer for her grandparents, and wears their amulet, as praise singers do, to remember their deeds.

In another neckpiece, Kathy Buszkiewicz uses sympathetic magic to ensure her artistic prowess, as hunters wear claws to enhance their chances of a kill. Her shawl, like all of her recent work, is made of used and shredded paper money, which she buys by the bale from the Treasury Department and transforms into jewelry. For Buszkiewicz the neckpiece is not, as one might reasonably think, a summons to the gods of wealth. Instead, she attributes her recent success as an artist to the inspiration of her symbolically rich medium, and hopes that this mantle of bills will ensure her continued creative powers. Buszkiewicz also acknowledges the resemblance of her scarf to a priest's stole: "Because I teach, I sometimes feel like I'm clergy. I could put on this scarf to listen to student confessions." in this reading, "sympathetic" rather than "magic" is the operative word.

sante War Shirt
Sonya Clark, Remembered Lives, 2003
Glass beads, glass, photographs, 15 x 2″
Photo: Norman Watkins

Geoffrey Giles clearly fulfills the mandate to create "jewelry as memento." His bracelet documents a recent haircut and includes physical evidence of the deed. The particular haircut is as monumental as a child's first trip to the barber. Giles, a Caucasian, had grown and worn long dreadlocks for eight years before deciding to remove them sometime after receiving the invitation to contribute to Charmed Lives. The dreadlocks had been both burden and gift. He wrote for the exhibition: "Whether it was the disgusting looks received whenever I went to the grocery store or the disbelief in people's eyes as they viewed my [precisely crafted] work and myself side by side, discrimination became a constant within my life…. I realized that I could no longer hold preconceived notions about those around me without considering myself a hypocrite…. I was taught tolerance."

The bracelet, with its sequential photographs of the event dangling like charms, invokes sacrificial initiation rites. In each photo taken by his father, another lock of the artist's hair has been cut by his unseen mother and placed across his outstretched arms like an offering. The first photo, of a person whose chest-length dreadlocks are a potent identifying feature, hangs beside the last, of a clean shorn, somewhat anonymous young man who by losing his hair seems to accept the mantle of a more conventional adulthood. Did Giles worry that the loss of his hair would mean the loss of his power, as it did for the biblical Sampson? "I worried that something would be different with my jewelry when I cut my hair. I worried that I might be cutting off my talent," Giles said. Perhaps that is why the square beads with their photographic pendants are strung on a loop of Giles's own tangled hair. This hair, like the stole of money, will protect the artist's creativity.

sante War Shirt
Kathy Buszkiewicz, Fortuitous Warmth, 2003
U.S. currency, cord, gold
1 1/2 x 9 x 60″

Enough of the past, enough of sentiment and magic. Karen Misher's piece Momentary seems to proclaim the mantra of guru Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), "Be here now!" The optical tenses she has used in previous work have been made into her first bracelet, which reflects the ever-changing world around the wearer. This is "memento as moment," Misher says. "I'm not given to symbolism. What I like best is knowing the reflection will change every second, capturing the moment you're in." This is a bracelet whose meaning is never degraded by time. Years from now, a new owner will never wonder what, exactly, each charm meant to the original holder.

Contrast this with the thousands of charm bracelets for sale on Ebay 13,695 items were listed on January 7, 2003, for example. Add "vintage" to the search and 407 items are listed. Each of the older pieces comes as a packet of someone else's memories. Which World War II sweetheart received charms of a bomber plane and an airmail letter from her betrothed? Did he survive? Did the marriage? One seller made it clear.

sante War Shirt
Karen Misher, Momentary, 2003
Sterling, prism, optic lenses
5/8 x 5/8 x 5 1/2″

This charm bracelet is from my childhood and it represents all my memories and my youth… [It includes] a sterling 1″ house that opens revealing furniture (my parents evicted me from my home of 25 years),… a tiny ice cube in tongs (to reminding me how cold people can be) and finally a sterling enamel plaque commemorating my sweet 16 birthday from a mother who later threw her daughter on the streets over Thanksgiving. So many memories and none pleasant. It is time to pass this on to someone else.

Who then bought this dystopian bracelet? Let's hope it will be melted down and transformed into good luck charms or framed reflections of the present moment, which if bad, will surely change.

  1. All quotations are from interviews with the author conducted between December 2003 and January 2004 unless otherwise noted.
  2. Little scholarly work has been done on charm bracelets. For a brief history, including a category of charm types see Yvonne J. Markowitz, "Jewelry as Biography The Charm Bracelet in Mid 20th Century America," Adornment, the Newsletter of Jewelry and Related Arts, vol. 3, no. 3, Fall 2001.
  3. Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex ( New York : Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 2002), 296, 298.
  4. Sian Jay, 'Amulet " The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, Oxford University Press.
  5. Quoted in Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa : Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Seattle Art Museum 2002), 64.
  6. McClusky, 74.
  7. Reported of Eugene Ormandy at the Philadelphia Academy of Music during the charm bracelet craze. Harold C. Schonberg, "Bangles, Candies and Latecomers," New York Times, August 1, 1965 .
By Vicki Halper [Metalsmith Magazine – Fall 2004]
Vicki Halper, whose recent publications include Findings The Jewelry of Ramona Solberg, is a former curator of modern art at the Seattle Art Museum.
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Vicki Halper

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