There have been numerous times throughout history when a woman with naked wrists wasn’t considered properly dressed. In the early days of the Victorian era, for example, bracelets were of utmost importance, worn on each wrist, sometimes two or three pairs at a time. Chain bracelets were the most popular style, usually fastened with a hand motif or a filigree-covered heart padlock. Sometimes the clasps were coded with precious jewels or colored paste glass, with the first letter of the gemstone (Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Diamond, Sapphire, Turquoise) spelling out words like “REGARDED” or “DEAREST.”
The queen herself is considered responsible for the most romantic styles, spurred by her tragic love story with Prince Albert, whose early death she mourned for the rest of her life. Victoria was fond of charm bracelets, with charms made out of sterling silver and gemstones, including puffy hearts, lockets, cameos, coins, and mechanical charms that had moving parts. Many of these charm bracelets were made of mourning trinkets, like a locket or container holding the hair of a deceased loved one, as well as teeth, claws, stones, and shells with significance to the wearer.
A hundred years later, in the 1950s, the charm bracelet experienced a revival in the United States, this time as costume jewelry and made of much cheaper material. The fad, popularized by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, was a lot more light-hearted and fun than the grim Victorian originals. A girl would start a charm bracelet at a young age, with each new charm commemorating a milestone in her life. Charms made by Walter Lampi, most famous for his enamel hearts, are among the most collectible of this era...
Bracelets, of course, come in a wide variety of designs and styles, including beaded and link bracelets, cuffs, and bangles. Another style that originated in the Victorian era was made out of woven hair or rope-like metal cannetille work, often in Pinchbeck brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. The finely stitched cannetille wire could be shaped into interlocking links, flowers, shells, curls, or coils on the bracelet, which usually featured a huge decorative clasp.
As new materials and manufacturing techniques emerged in the 1920s and '30s, bracelets became even more wildly diverse and creative. The Art Deco movement brought about all sorts of link costume-jewelry bracelets—the rectangular Renaissance Revival style and more circular Czech style featured delicate patterns of filigree, enamel, and stone, while the Geometric style coming out of Germany and England were more streamlined and spare.
But the defining bracelet of the '20s and '30s was the bangle, popularized by the edgy flapper look. The Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1922 prompted a craze for wide bangles made of ivory. British socialite and trendsetter Nancy Clara Cunard wore armfuls of these large, bone-like bangles.
A flapper might adorn herself with an ivory bangle, sometimes paste-studded, just above her elbow, with a chiffon handkerchief tucked into it. These chic young women often piled jade or ivory bangles, stiff bracelets in a circular shape, on their slender wrists to show off the slinkiness of their scandalously exposed arms. The most outrageous among them stacked bangles from wrist to elbow, like bold, abstract ribbons, sometimes with Asian or Egyptian motifs.
Thanks to 20th-century innovations in plastics, the craze—which lasted well into the '50s and '60s—took on wild colors, with costume-jewelry bangles manufactured in all shapes, sizes, and patterns. Bakelite was the most popular material for these eye-popping arm ornaments. Some of the most treasured, known as Philadelphia bangles, came in vibrant combinations of opaque butterscotch, rust, and avocado.
Bangles made of Bakelite or celluloid could also be carved; a clear tinted bangle might have a motif like a fish carved into the back, so it appears to be suspended in amber. Bangles made in clear "Apple Juice" colored Bakelite are among the most sought-after.
The machine age, as well as women's new-found independence, sparked the cold and severe '30s cocktail style of jewelry, which emphasized the rhythm and movements of a factory assembly line—incorporating theories of Bauhaus, Futurism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism. These heavy, chrome or gilt, armor-like bracelets might have large stones, or flexible metal links shaped like bricks, bows, or even tire tracks alluding to factory mechanization or moving staircases.
During World War II, when women took over factory jobs for the soldiers abroad, bracelet design become even more explicitly obsessed with industry, as ball bearings, screw-heads, girders, pipes, rods, cogs, washers, nuts, and bolts were incorporated into ultra-modern arm wear.
More glamorous styles of 20th-century bangles and bracelets were pavé-set or beaded with diamante or colored rhinestones. In particular, Coro's Vendome line, launched in 1953, emulated the glittery look of the high-end fine jewelry worn by the most elegant Hollywood stars.
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