Charm Bracelets: Objects of Memory

2005-029--Crystal Pruitt

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Charm bracelets have long been a source of fascination for me. I can remember that as a little girl I used to play with my mother's bracelet whenever she pulled it out of the special spot she had made for it inside of her jewelry box. She would do so on rare occasions, times when just the two of us were in her room. As I grew older, I would carefully look each one of her charms over with an eye for understanding the person that my mother was before I had entered her life. The charms spanned from the time she was a teenager up until my older brother was born. Sometimes my mother would share stories embodied by charms on her bracelet and I listened intently because it was such an unusual thing for my mother to open herself up to me. Looking back, I suspect that she might have been feeling somewhat sentimental at those times.
There didn't seem to be a connection between the charms that my family and I wear and the charms recognized by folklorists. I began my research by looking through folklore encyclopedias and dictionaries located in the Fenwick library on campus. What I found is that folklorists view charms as possessing supernatural powers. I initially dismissed that conception of charms as being passé in today's modern society.
I then turned to the Internet to see what that might yield. There were a number of sites selling charms, but few offered any information that I could make use of. The histories some featured were incomplete, presenting large gaps applications of charms. I approached my professor about these problems I encountered and she suggested that I make my search more general and look for anything I could find on objects of memory that might apply.

My next stop on the path of research was the Arlington Public Library. There I explored the online catalog and came up with four titles. However, not one of them was on the shelf where I could have expected them to be. I then enlisted the aid of two librarians at the research desk. One went off to try to find my missing books. The other remained with me and together we looked at other possible avenues of information. We consulted the Library of Congress's online catalog, which yielded the very same four titles that I had come up with previously. She then conducted a search on a database of magazine articles. It turned up a large number of advertisements. Interestingly, one of these seemed like it might be the plagiarized source for all of the incomplete histories of charm bracelets that I had found on the Internet. The other librarian returned empty-handed. The two suggested that I either pursue the four books at the Library of Congress or purchase them online. I went with their latter suggestion. My expectations for the books were low. It seemed there just wasn't a lot of information available on charm bracelets no matter where I looked.

When I looked for scholarly articles on objects of memory, I returned to the Internet. I located an article written by Lene Otto and Lykke Pedersen titled “Collecting Oneself: Life Stories and Objects of Memory” which considered the things people choose to collect from a biographical perspective. This article posited that these objects tell a story about their owner's lives. The authors had also made fortunate reference to an article I had recently read for class, titled “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review” by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, causing me to revisit it, only this time considering how charms fit into the author's six types of objects of memory. Reading the Kirshenblatt-Gimblett piece again had reminded me of something else I had read for class, a book section entitled “Making Special: Toward a Behavior of Art” by Ellen Dissanayake. After taking another look at that selection, I thought about how charms recognize and reform reality.

I had selected my main sources and it was time to direct my attention back to problem of reconstructing a complete history of charm bracelets. Three of the four books I had ordered over the Internet arrived and I read them over. The book I expected to fill in the gaps was Schwartz’s Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide, but it only discussed fashion trends and that was not the emphasis that I was looking for. Zabar’s Charmed Bracelets did not contain any historical data. The third book, My Mother's Charms, did not directly inform me of the history of charms. However, it did point me to the book's website, which contained a page titled “A History of Charms and Charm Bracelets.”
Here, Kathleen Oldford claims that charms have been in existence ever since the Neolithic Age. At the time that I read this I wondered what source she based her information on, since she did not reveal any. The Charm of Charms, the fourth book I had ordered over the Internet, places the origin of charms in the Paleolithic Age and refers to an archaeological find made in December of 2003 of figurines carved from ivory (Hackney 14). However, it is impossible to ascertain their intended purpose.

History and Fieldwork Data

Charm bracelets and necklaces first appeared in a recognizable form during the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They were used both to protect and to indicate status, both in this life and the next (Oldford, “History”). These uses remained relatively constant throughout Greek and Roman times, all the way through to the Renaissance, when superstition was replaced with science. Oldford and Hackney remain consistent with each other’s information up until they reach this point. Oldford maintains that charms fell out of favor then with the elite while the lower classes persisted in using them, whereas Hackney suggests that the European aristocracy continued to use charms during this time, citing Catherine de Médici (1519-1589) and Elizabeth I (1532-1603) as owners of charms with supposedly supernatural powers (14).

The next significant change in the role of charm bracelets was when Queen Victoria brought them into vogue in the early 20th century (Oldford, “History”). By this point, they had largely shed their magical associations, becoming more sentimental in nature. Parallel to this change in significance, charms were more widely available following the Industrial Revolution, both in quantity and cost. Their newfound popularity was such that charm makers remained in business throughout the 1920s and 1930s, despite the Depression (Hackney 16).

Soldiers fighting in WWII picked up charms wherever their travels led them. They sent these trinkets back home to waiting loved ones. During in the 1940s, celluloid charms were available from gumball machines, in addition to the more expensive versions still around in silver and in gold. By the mid-fifties one out of every two women owned a charm bracelet (Schwartz 104). Rites of passage were recorded on charm bracelets, from “Sweet 16” birthdays to graduations to marriage and the subsequent birth of children. Early in the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s the popularity of the charm bracelet diminished only to expand again within the same decade. These later charms were once more symbolic of the wearer's perceived status, and took the form of a single, large golden medallion suspended from necklaces as well as bracelets.
During the mid to late 1980s modern plastic charms, bracelets, and necklaces were available in gumball machines for just a quarter apiece. I personally had a collection of these. Demand for vintage charms coincided with the rise of auction sites such as eBay in the 1990s. Charm collecting has remained popular even in the new millennium.

Charm collecting has become a sort of tradition within my own family. When my mother became a teenager she was given a charm bracelet by my grandmother. In this manner each of my mother's sisters, including my Aunt Joyce, Aunt Lil, Aunt Jean (my mother's twin), and Aunt Cheryl received their bracelets. Charms were added on birthdays and Christmas. These reflected their interests at the time or represented the rites of passage. My mother's charm bracelet inspired me to start one for myself. In my late teens I began collecting charms using money I had earned from an after-school job. I chose charms that either appealed to my aesthetic or I felt reflected me.

I collected charms for myself until my family was devastated by the unexpected loss of my Aunt Joyce in 2003 to suicide. I was raised in Florida and most of my mother's side of the family remained concentrated in Massachusetts, where we were born. I never had consistent contact with any of my aunts. I would periodically exchange letters with my Aunt Joyce and Aunt Lil (who resided in Chicago). Every so often, my mother, my brother, and I attended reunions held in Massachusetts. At one point my Aunt Joyce visited us in Florida. Despite the distance in miles between my extended family and me we were otherwise close. I received the call from my Aunt Lil. I became very concerned for how the news was affecting her. She had loved my Aunt Joyce very much. We spent many nights on the phone remembering Aunt Joyce and becoming better acquainted with each other. Eventually our charm bracelets entered the conversation.

Aunt Lil had recently sent me three charms, each with its own sticky note to explain the significance she had intended for them: a telephone that opens up accompanied by “Hope this charm reminds you of all our phone conversations,” a heart charm with the words “Hope this charm reminds you that I love you,” and a seated cat along with a note that reads “Hope this charm reminds you of Rand” (St. Pierre, Letter, Date unknown). This is how Aunt Lil learned of my charm bracelet and how we began exchanging charms with one another. About a year later Aunt Lil and I began to plan a get-together in Chicago during the summer. It was naturally assumed that Andrew, my fiancé, would accompany me on the trip. I suggested that we invite Uncle Randy, my Aunt Joyce's widower, along too. Aunt Lil thought it was a great idea and all of the arrangements were made.

My charms came with me on the trip to Chicago. One afternoon while Aunt Lil, Uncle Randy, Andrew, and I were sitting in the backyard I brought out my charms to show to my Aunt Lil and to enlist her help in moving them from a bracelet that had become too big and bulky for me onto several smaller ones. There were also several unattached charms that I wanted to be included on the new bracelets as well. Attaching charms to bracelets has long been a source of frustration for me, but Aunt Lil didn’t seem to mind it as much. She went and retrieved her own bracelet along with some tools I thought we would need to make the transfer: a metal nail file and a set of tweezers. Aunt Lil told me during our interview that she generally only uses her fingernails (25). Never the less the steps for using a nail file and a set of tweezers are as follows: 1. Take several deep breaths – this may take a few tries. 2. Insert the file in between the coils of the split ring (it may help to start out using your fingernail). 3. Then grab hold of the split ring with the tweezers using your other hand. 4. Carefully twist the file, opening the ring up enough to slip a charm onto it. 5. Pull the nail file out and use the tweezers to help you wind the charm until it is on all the way.

I did not expect Uncle Randy or Andrew to help us, but they did. They seemed to enjoy looking all of my charms over. I recall that Aunt Lil came across my dragonfly charm and commented, “I didn't know that you liked dragonflies, too.” As we worked on my bracelets we explained the assigned meanings behind our charms. Uncle Randy spoke of Aunt Joyce and described her bracelet for us. Aunt Lil and I in turn shared our fond memories of his wife. Aunt Lil, Uncle Randy, and I experienced some degree of catharsis that afternoon.

Aunt Lil and I found it amusing to watch Uncle Randy attaching the charms on account of his large fingers. I remember Uncle Randy comparing charms to fishing lures. Aunt Lil at one point excused herself from the table with no explanation of where she was going. When she returned she presented me with two charms, a fishing rod and another cat, this one laying down. These didn't come with Aunt Lil's customary sticky notes to remind me later of why she had chosen those for me. I must have looked disappointed because Aunt Lil said, “Oh, I take it you want a sticky note.” Aunt Lil recently stated in an interview I had with her that, “[…] I didn't realize when I started writing these little notes how meaningful that was” (23). She rectified this with a note that reads, “Hope this kitty charm reminds you of 'Ozzie,' the cuddly kitty + hope the fishing charm reminds you of Uncle Randy on your trip to Chicago” (St. Pierre, Letter, July 2004). I took the dragonfly charm off of my own bracelet and presented it to Aunt Lil hoping that with it she would remember this special occasion, too.

Not long after the trip to Chicago I received a small package in the mail from Uncle Randy. Inside was my Aunt Joyce's charm bracelet. I see someone else’s charms as a means for me to get to know him or her better. Aunt Lil has been an invaluable resource in my understanding of Aunt Joyce’s bracelet. During our interview, I described some of Aunt Joyce's charms, among them a typewriter. Aunt Lil used her knowledge my Aunt Joyce's life to interpret it. “[...] In high school Aunt Joyce was in the business curriculum, and she was a very good typist, and when she went out into the work […] world […] she certainly typed […] as part of her duties, too, in an office, so I can understand why the meaning of a typewriter is important to her” (34). Aunt Lil also used her experience to analyze Aunt Joyce's charms, “Um, in the teacup and saucer you mentioned I thought, you know, that reminded me of how you could walk in […] your Aunt Joyce's house anytime, and […] you could always get a cup of coffee in that house” (36). I can never be sure of what meanings my Aunt Joyce assigned to her charms. Instead, I have invited other people who were a part of her life to share with me what aspects of my aunt the charms remind them of. In this way, I am getting to know her better.


My general understanding of charms and charm bracelets has been greatly enhanced by analyzing them as objects of memory. I considered how some specific charms and charm bracelets fit into the six different types of objects of memory outlined by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in her article “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.” The first type Kirshenblatt-Gimblett discusses, material companions, includes objects “that have aged with their owners” and “are valued for their continuity” (330). In a recent phone conversation with my Aunt Jean (Durgan), I learned that she still wears the charm bracelet that her mother started for her when she was a teenager everyday even though she has not added a single charm to it since she was in high school. Aunt Jean has never parted with her bracelet. It has been a constant thing in her life and that is precisely what makes it a material companion.

The second and third types of objects of memory are “Souvenirs and mementos, [which] as the terms themselves imply, are from the outset intended to serve as a reminder of an ephemeral experience or absent person” (330). During the interview with my Aunt Lil I described a charm that I had found on Aunt Joyce's bracelet. I told her that it looked like it might have been Mary holding a wounded Jesus in her arms and the bottom read “Pietà.” Aunt Lil replied, “Wow, if it is the Pietà. […] That is something now. […] This is wonderful that you even mention this because I had not even thought about this until now. [Joyce and I] were in New York at the World's Fair; they had the Pietà on exhibit for us to see at the World's Fair” (35). I asked my Aunt Lil if she has the same charm. She answered, “No, I don't. No, unh-uh” (35).

Aunt Lil was fourteen and Aunt Joyce was eighteen when they went together to see the World's Fair so it is no surprise that Aunt Joyce had more money at her disposal to purchase charms with than Aunt Lil did at the time. However, judging by her reaction to being reminded of the Pietà, Aunt Lil would have certainly bought this charm for herself if she had the means to. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett further explains “[…] Souvenirs are saved prospectively with a sense of their future ability to call back memories […]” (331). Perhaps if Aunt Lil had been able to add the Pietà to her bracelet she wouldn't have forgotten that she had seen it until it had resurfaced in our interview.

The fourth type, memory objects, is according to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “[…] A way [for individuals] to materialize images, and through them, to recapture earlier experiences” (331). I posed the following question to Aunt Lil during my interview with her: “[…] What charms, if any, do you feel are missing from your bracelet?” Aunt Lil had an interesting reply:

I think [a clover] would remind me of a special relationship that I had with my dad. […] St. Patrick's Day is of course on March 17th. Your grandmother's birthday was on March 18th, and […] when I would send your grandmother a birthday card I thought […] “It would be nice to send your Pepe, your grandfather, something too.” So […] I started the tradition of sending your grandfather […] a St. Patrick's Day card, and of course your grandmother […] a birthday card. So they always received a card the same time from me. […] It really became something that Pepe looked forward to receiving, and it just became a tradition that he and I had. So, if I did add a clover to my charm bracelet now, it would remind me of all the years that we had that tradition between us […]. And he was really the only one in the family that I would do that to. (31-32)

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett further explains, “[M]emory objects are produced retrospectively, long after the events they depict transpired” (331). I think a clover charm as Aunt Lil sees it qualifies as a memory object. It so happens that some unattached charms arrived in my mailbox the following day after my interview with Aunt Lil. These had belonged to my Aunt Joyce and were mailed to me by Uncle Randy. Among them was a four-leaf clover that I interpreted as being intended for my Aunt Lil even if my Uncle Randy hadn't been informed. I gave the charm to Aunt Lil and she not only associates it with Aunt Joyce, but it also recalls to mind the St. Patrick's Day tradition that existed between her and Pepe.

The fifth type of objects of memory is the collectable. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett states, “Whereas the souvenir authenticates the past and is a tool for remembering, the collectable is authenticated by the past.” She further explains “Objects that are no longer useful, fashionable, or readily available, or connected to an originating context, become collectable; they are liberated for semiotic retooling” (332). During my interview with my Aunt Lil I inquired about her most treasured charms and the one she mentioned first was a block fashioned from scrimshaw (11). According to Wikipedia, “In sailing, a block is a single or multiple pulley.” Aunt Lil explained why this charm is her favorite:

[…] To pass the time by at sea [whalers] would take some of the whale bone and etch in different scenes […], often times scenes of the ship and some of the scenes of the actual whaling in progress. And they would bring [these] trinkets back home and give them to their loved ones. So that has a special meaning for me, just the […] art that goes into a piece of scrimshaw. Also I grew up in the New Bedford area. “[…] New Bedford is still to this day a fishing port […] and my father for many years was a commercial fisherman. Not that he went out to catch whales […]” (12)

Aunt Lil sees her scrimshaw charm as a genuine piece of history. The art of carving scrimshaw used to be a form of diversion for sailors who had access to whale bone, but whaling is no longer a viable occupation with so many species of whales close to the brink of extinction. Now scrimshaw is very difficult to come by. According to Wikipedia, “Most of the original scrimshaw created by whalers is currently held by museums.” Also, the connection that my Aunt Lil makes between her father, who was a commercial fisherman and not a whaler, and her taste for scrimshaw is certainly an interesting one. This possibly could be even considered “semiotic retooling” on her part.

The sixth type of objects of memory is ensembles, which are collections of objects that are considered as forming a whole. Charms are collected over a span of one’s life and they come together on a bracelet. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains that “Recipe notebooks, rag rugs, quilts, and collections of miniatures are among the many tangible ways that lives are gathered together and reviewed” (333). Charm bracelets are a collection of miniatures that give tangible representation to the elements of a life. It is often used in life review. “Like the collection, the miniature tableau offers the pleasures of a hermetic universe, autonomous and controllable” (335). Charm bracelets are their own subjective reality.

Ellen Dissanayake further elaborates on how this separate reality is reached in What Is Art For? According to her, “making special” is a fundamental human tendency that involves giving reality “particularity” and “import” (92). With a charm bracelet the everyday can be transformed into something special through the selection and arrangement of charms. This is how objective reality is elaborated or reformed thus revealing an alternative, subjective reality.

The subjective reality embodied in a charm bracelet can be interpreted as a sort of autobiography. According to Lene Otto and Lykke L. Pedersen, in their article “Collecting Oneself: Life Stories and Objects of Memory,” “Every collection, however small and insignificant it might be, constitutes a personal narrative by virtue of its selection, composition, and ordering principles” (85). Further, “Things, like words of a language, constitute and construct reality” (79). Thus, this personal narrative conveyed with a charm bracelet can be viewed as a manifestation of Dissanayake’s concept of “making special.”

The specialness that saturates a charm collection stems from an individual’s life history. Otto and Pedersen explain “[The] value [of collections] lies only inside the person who keeps them” (79). Some charms reflect aspects of one’s individuality. Others represent events that are significant to the individual, including, but not limited to the rites of passage. Both categories of charms come together on a bracelet in a way that is coherent and most meaningful to the collector. According to Otto and Pedersen “The subjective value of an object of memory can lie both in its visible expression and in its biographical content, or perhaps rather in a combination of the two” (80). By considering charm bracelets as a sort of autobiography an outside observer can obtain a sense of how the collector perceived his or her reality.

The folklorists’ view of charms as possessing supernatural powers is not necessarily as irrelevant to today as I initially assumed it was. Charms acknowledge the existence of an alternative world. Further, “[...] if modern day charms don't cast spells in the ancient sense, they do contain a powerful force: memory, in the form of personal history” (Zabar 12-13).

Additional Field Work Notes: The interview with my Aunt Lil took place the morning of March 25, 2005 via the phone. I recorded it using my Macintosh computer with a device referred to as a wireless phone recording controller that I had purchased for this purpose at RadioShack. The interview last about a total of two hours and all told it took over twenty hours for me transcribe. While transcribing the interview material I found that both my aunt and I use the phrase “you know” quite frequently. When it came to incorporating the quotes I had selected for use in my paper I removed all instances of this phrase and replaced them with [...].

Works Cited

Dissanayake, Ellen. What Is Art For? Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Durgan, Jean. Phone interview. 26 April 2005.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.” Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader. Ed. Elliott Oring. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 1989. 329-338.
Hackney, Ki. The Charm of Charms. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005.
Oldford, Kathleen. “A History of Charms and Charm Bracelets.” My Mother's Charms. 30 April 2005 <>.
---. My Mother’s Charms. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Otto, Lene and Lykke L. Pedersen. “Collecting Oneself: Life Stories and Objects of Memory.” Ethnologia Scandinavica 28 (1998): 77-92.
Schwartz, Joanne. Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2005.
St. Pierre, Lil. Telephone Interview. 25 March 2005.
---. Letter to the author. Date unknown.
---. Letter to the author. July 2004.
Wikipedia. 2005. 1 May 2005 <>.
Zabar, Tracey. Charmed Bracelets. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004.

{Note to current folklore students: please do not use Wikipedia as an scholarly source. Use it to point you in the direction of further research, but since any one can add information to it, please do not use it as a citation).

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