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The AJC Guide to Charm Jewellery

Charm /tʃɑːm/ noun: the power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others

Timeless and sentimental, charms have indeed delighted, attracted and fascinated people since people first thought to cobble things together and wear them. Charms have the power to tell a story, to symbolise beliefs and to hold secrets. They allow you to express yourself in style. And what could hold more allure than that?

Antique charms
An 18ct Gold & Blue Enamel Heart Shaped Pendant by Fabergé

While there is a plethora of modern charms in production each day, if you value singularity, distinctiveness and echoes of a past era as much as we do, nothing beats the excitement of hunting down the best vintage and antique charms.

There is something humbling and infinitely sentimental about inheriting a charm bracelet or necklace as a family heirloom, but curating charm jewellery yourself to tell your own story is a hugely fun, special experience. The assembly of charm bracelets and necklaces makes a wonderful project and a fail-proof present.

If you’re hooked on the concept and are looking for some pointers, then look no further. We’ve put together some pointers to help you master the art of charm curation:

Is this the first chapter or the full story?

There are two ways to set about curating a piece of charm jewellery (particularly if it is for somebody else) so you need to decide which route holds most appeal for you.

  1. Chapter One

If you have the panache (and you will by the end of this guide!) to find, let’s say, a really beautiful, simple chain with a single perfectly poignant charm, then consider this as Chapter One of your story. Over time, you can add to the collection. This is the gift that quite literally keeps on giving.

2. The Whole Story

A really glorious piece of jewellery that tells a complete story with charms is an instant showstopper. The best are unique, imperfect and personal – a collection of metaphors or simply a perfectly stylish jumble.

It’s the thought that counts

We hope this one’s obvious. The best jewellery isn’t just wonderful and generous because it twinkles or because you’ve spent a month’s salary on it, it’s wonderful and generous because it comes from the heart and represents your affection at a moment in time. Charm jewellery is more personal than most. It should express the wearer’s personality, life and loves.

Consider the wearer’s personal style

This is particularly key when creating a token for somebody else. As with anything decorative, be true to the wearer’s style. If they are feminine and delicate you might find an ultra fine, twinkling chain with a single pretty charm or two. If they’re bold and expressive they might better suit a chunky charm bracelet laden with goodies. If they’re a reckless teen you could err on the side of caution with a leather cord and a few cheeky adornments.

Tell your story

You are the author and the charms are your quill. Perhaps for you the fun is to amass a collection of charms that simply tickle your fancy at random, and that’s great. Or you could don a collection of ancient coins in different shapes and sizes, just because their crooked beauty somehow feels perfect. Like a collection of poetry.

My own favourite pieces of charm jewellery are tied together with symbolism. For me, that’s what makes them special rather than just decorative. It could be a series of tiny objects representing the things you love – a mini shoe, a little car, a miniature doll, a clown, a tiny diamond ring. Lockets, engravings, letters and birthstones are all brilliant ways to represent people you love.

Historic symbolism has its own intrigue. An assembly of romantic little charms from the Victorian era are like tiny souvenirs of a time gone by. You could do as the ancients did and protect yourself with superstitious symbols. Such is the breadth of shifting symbolism and fashions over time that vintage and antique charms come in every style imaginable.

Always quality over quantity

First up, the piece of jewellery that carries those charms is as important to get right. Be it a chain, a bangle or a cord, quality counts for a lot – no good spending time pouring love and attention into gathering charms only for them to tumble into a drain thanks to a shoddy ‘host’.

When it comes to gold or silver, plating or imitation metals can rub off or fade with wear and water. Investing in an elegant, high quality chain with smart links is wise if you want it to stand the test of time. ******LINK CHAINS*******

As with the host bracelet or necklace, investing a little more time and budget in finding high quality charms is the difference between a lifelong keepsake and a tired-looking heap of jewellery at the bottom of the jewellery box. Cheap metals or plastics might be jaunty at first but will soon lose their lustre or break. Ask your seller about the history or origin of the piece and the materials used.

..But you can be creative with your budget

Charms are endlessly adaptable and you can create something striking and poignant whatever your budget or style. While it’s key to consider materials that will stand the test of time, you don’t need to splash out on precious metals or gemstones here. A simple and strong leather cord can be as effective as a gold chain and a beautifully crafted wooden charm could be as perfect as any other. Vintage or antique pieces will also provide better value for money – because there is no ‘newness’ premium – if you are keen to use precious metals and stones.

Vintage or modern?

The most important thing is that you focus on quality, appeal and sentiment. That is in the design and the materials and not the age of your charm.

There is, however, something really special about acquiring something pre-loved, with a story of its own to tell. Because charms are somehow all about the storytelling, a past gives a charm that extra edge and some of the most outstanding, iconic charm jewellery is compiled from vintage or antique pieces.

Given the relative recency of factory production, vintage or antique status also means you are likely to have found a unique piece rather than one of a large modern batch. And on a practical level, vintage and antique jewellery allows you to invest in something a bit more special for your collection as you don’t pay a premium for ‘newness’.

Now you can walk the walk, let’s talk the talk with a bit of history…

Throughout time, charms have provided a glimpse into the wearer’s identity. From the religious and superstitious iconography of the ancient civilisations to the more romantic and sentimental symbols of the Victorian era, charm-wearing has always been fiercely personal and eminently chic.

Charms can be traced right back to the Stone Age, when elaborate jewellery was created from pieces of bone, wood and shell were strung onto leather. They were used as amulets or talismans throughout the Bronze Age and in Ancient Egypt to ward off evil and bring good luck to the wearer and were worn by medieval knights as protection in battle.

During the Roman Empire charms became a means of expressing ones beliefs and forging a sense of belonging. Christians wore fish charms (still a popular motif) as a passage into worship with other christians. Jews wore religious passages in gold charms to keep them close to their hearts. This expression of identity is still going strong in today’s charm-wearing styles.

Women’s chatelaines in the 18th and 19th centuries – which were pinned to a woman’s waist and carried such essentials as magnifying glasses or sewing utensils – also carried decorative, sterling silver charms. They are considered to be the early form of the charm bracelets that became so popular soon after.

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria – one of the most significant style icons in history – popularised charm-wearing as a romantic or sentimental statement throughout Europe and made them highly fashionable. She wore, gave and received charms to represent the loves, losses and superstitions of her life. One charm bracelet, given to her by Prince Albert on the birth of their first child, Victoria, eventually held nine enamel heart lockets containing locks of hair for each of her children. Consumed by grief at her husband’s death, Queen Victoria had created ‘mourning charms’ which were typically black enamel on gold, often engraved or depicting the head of a male. By the late 19th century, symbolism grew lighter once more, focusing on imagery such as hearts, flowers and four leaf clovers. It was Queen Victoria who really set the tone for expressing the life and identity of a woman through wearing charms.

With the arrival of platinum and advanced gemstone cutting, Edwardian, Belle Epoque and Art Deco charms became intricate, sparkly beauties. Houses such as Boucheron and Cartier were creating highly expressive, delicate charms with playful, lighthearted motifs such as music for the ‘Jazz Age’ and popular hobbies such as sports as well as elegant romantic and sentimental pieces.

Wartime provided an opportunity for charm-wearing to focus on superstition and romance once again. Soldiers sent charms home from battlefields around Europe. The women left at home wore patriotic and good luck symbols to help will their men back home. What’s more, charms were now being mass-produced, which made them widely available for everybody, boosting their popularity further.

Throughout the 21st century, glamorous Hollywood figures and style icons such as Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and Wallis Simpson were regularly seen wearing highly personal charm souvenirs and love tokens. As with Queen Victoria in the 18th century, the style queens of this century set the tone for these timeless creations and ensured that the desirability of charm-wearing endures to this day.

Vivien Leigh charm bracelet
Vivien Leigh’s charm bracelet, including mementos of her most memorable film roles, including Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Sold for £33,750 in 2017.

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