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What My Charm Bracelet Teaches Me About My Mother

Her trendy gift is all about her enduring love.

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Charm bracelet and photo of Mom
Lexey Swall
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I’ve always liked the sound of jingling, like wind chimes or sleigh bells — or charm bracelets. When I turned 13, my mother bought me a sterling silver link bracelet. For eight years, we added sterling charms together, tangibly commemorating special events, trips and hobbies. Big city department stores carried charms then, as did hotel gift shops and local jewelry stores.

My mother purchased the trendy presents. (She even bought miniskirts — no more than eight inches above the knee — for my sister and me, despite having to hand-hold our father.)

Charm bracelets had become a craze in the 1950s and were going strong in 1968 when I received mine. One reason that they were desirable, my mother said, was because movie stars and famous women wore them; indeed, Natalie Wood, Lauren Bacall and Bette Davis often wore theirs in Hollywood photographs. According to jewelry historian Beth Bernstein, Elizabeth Taylor wore her own bracelet even while filming Giant, and Grace Kelly’s prop bracelet in Rear Window spawned copies at various prices.

First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, to whom my mother related as an Army wife, was photographed frequently wearing hers. Fittingly, theirs were gold.

As far back as 600 B.C., ancient cultures attached charms to leather wrist straps, probably as amulets; Egyptians were buried with them as identification for the afterlife. In Roman times and for centuries, charms were worn (or carried) to identify religious, spiritual or superstitious beliefs. Centuries of practice changed with Queen Victoria.

As historian Karen Harris phrases it, the monarch “single-handedly created a fashion craze across Europe,” inspiring European elites to wear decorative bracelets that were personally meaningful. The Royal Collection Trust holds several of Victoria’s such bracelets, notably the gold chain bracelet “with nine enameled heart-shaped lockets of different colors; containing the hair of Queen Victoria’s children.”

In 1889, Tiffany & Co. brought the fad to America, launching a trend that endured during the Depression and really took off after WWII when soldiers brought home European gift charms to spouses and girlfriends. During the 1950s, the bracelets also became popular with teenagers.

Today, while luxury jewelers sell many styles of charm bracelets in sterling silver and gold, Pandora dominates the market, with worldwide sales reaching $3.5 billion in 2021, according to reporting by Pamela Danziger for Forbes magazine in her article “How Pandora Plans to Double Its U.S. Jewelry Sales After Breaking $1 Billion in 2021.” Specializing in charms that clip on to bracelets, and also traditional dangling charms, Pandora is “the LEGO version of jewelry,” opined company president Luciano Rodembusch in the March 2, 2022, article.

My favorites were the colored charms, like the two-toned cat resembling our family’s Siamese, the cat my mother had always wanted. She marked my July birthday with a crimson medallion bearing a resin crab. The green-and-white “Savannah, Georgia” pendant conjured shrimp dinners and riverside strolls while visiting my aunt, my mother’s only sister.

The author, Clorisa Phillips wearing the charm bracelet.
The author, Clorisa Phillips, wearing the charm bracelet.
Photo: Lexey Swall

I wore my bracelet to church, school dances, dinners out and weddings, enjoying the jingling whenever I moved my arm. I never wore it to a funeral; I thought solemnity warranted silence.

Recently, I’ve gone through my deceased mother’s jewelry, finding her sparkling faux gemstone brooches from the 1950s and ’60s, now fashionable again. What lingers in my thoughts, though, is my mother’s own charm bracelet, a gift from my father, sister and me when she was in her 50s. It was gold, and we added jeweled charms to mark her wedding anniversary and family birthdays. She loved it.

I’ve pondered why my mother wanted me to own a charm bracelet when she didn’t have one until our gift. Born into a rural Georgia family, she was orphaned during the Depression at age 15, when her mother died in childbirth with the seventh child and her father died five months later. Her older brother, only 18, worked and kept the children together while she and her older sister raised four brothers, including the newborn. Obviously, she couldn’t afford jingling bling.

Even if there had been money for a bracelet, my mother was denied the experiences commemorated by my charms. No trips, no special hobbies, no celebration of high school graduation. She did have a cat, a rescued stray.

My father’s senior Army rank enabled my mother to create a better childhood for my sister and me. She made birthdays and holidays festive, was “Room Mother” at my school and co-led my Girl Scout troop, and made dresses for school and college dances from patterns and fabric I selected. She even accompanied me to graduate school interviews so that I didn’t have to fret about parking.

Fads were fun, but what my mother really wanted was for her daughters to experience childhood opportunities, special occasions and long-lasting love. As I run my fingers over my grand piano charm, I see her waiting patiently through nine years of lessons until I could drive to them myself. Spinning the blue and silver Hyatt Regency Atlanta charm, I remember the futuristic hotel and sightseeing with my mother while my father attended a conference. Touching a blue-jeweled lavaliere and a miniature class ring, I still feel my parents’ pride about my high-school valedictorian honor.

The last charms from my parents were a quarter-size medallion commemorating the Bicentennial, engraved to mark my 21st birthday in the same month, and an embossed disc celebrating my college graduation. From then on, buying more charms was up to me. I didn’t purchase any new ones, but in my 20s and 30s I made charms of necklace pendants my parents gave me years before.

Despite the ongoing popularity of charm bracelets, I know only a few women who still have theirs. I’ve come to understand that mine was more than a fad. At the age of 67, more than 50 years after receiving it, I still wear my charm bracelet and I still love to hear the jingling. It reminds me of my parents, no longer here, though always with me.

Do any of you own a charm bracelet? Is it special to you? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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