By Ken Buckingham
From a lucky token to a spell-binding attitude, a charm is something that feels nourishing to have near. Charms are as old as jewelry itself, beginning with a curious object, a piece of bone, a shell, which did not serve a function for finding food or building shelter. Rather, it aided in something intangible. Strung about one’s neck, close to the heart, a charm, with a magical quality, would evoke feelings of protection and power. The first jewelry across civilizations is always the necklace. Eve’s amulets call to this heritage of adornment across cultures. Their organic textures and simple forms speak to something primal and natural.
The essence of charms is that they invoke something beyond their material form. They started as found objects with curious natures but were transformed as humans began to design and modify forms to transcend raw materials. The earliest evidence of personal adornment was discovered in Morocco, Algeria, Israel, and South America. 110,000 year old beads made of shells were painted, carved and transformed into objects of beauty. The earliest object to take on the figurative quality of charms we know today is the Venus of Hohle Fels. The human form carved from mammoth ivory was discovered in Germany and is estimated to be 30,000 years old. Instead of a head, the figure has a ring between the shoulders with a polish from wear suggesting it was worn as a pendant.
Early charms were often used to ward off negative energy and entities. This quality of deflecting harm and evil is called apotropaic magic. It is most popularly embodied by the evil eye charm, originating approximately five thousand years ago in ancient Greece. Still today, about 40% of the world’s population believes in the power of the evil eye.
Another purpose has been means of identification. Ancient Egyptians would be buried with charms that functioned to identify them to the gods. Early Christians living during the time of the Roman Empire would wear fish charms to discreetly identify one another. To this day, people wear religious charms to communicate their faith and carry its spirit with them. This function of identification has branched out beyond the spiritual and into the secular. Infinite possibilities of iconography could communicate one’s affiliation to a group or shared interest that sparks connection and familiarity between strangers if they identify one another.
Perhaps the most familiar and condensed context for charms in our modern culture is the charm bracelet. Charms are first seen worn on the wrist around 700-400 BC by ancient Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians. Multiple charms would be strung on a leather chord and worn about the wrist. We have to wonder if they had the same appeal of the jingling sound as one moved about as they do now.
Charm bracelets experienced their second wave of popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid 1800s. The queen’s love of charms, especially charm bracelets which she would wear and give as gifts, made them popular amongst the wealthy and elite. She also popularized sentimental charms, when previously charms had primarily functioned as identifiers (a family crest) or even functional items (miniature magnifying glasses). The queen wore charms that contained locks of hair from her love, Prince Albert, and her children. She would commemorate major events with the curation of new charm bracelets. Most notably, two mourning bracelets were made in the wake of her husband’s passing. Before she died, she stipulated the desire to be buried with 150 personal charms. Her passion for the power of charms left lasting impact on their popularity.
Because of their association with the queen, charms were connected to wealth and power. At the same time, the industrial revolution was taking place, making mass production more feasible. While they were not made with the skill and highest quality materials of handmade jewelry purchased by the upper class, charms could be obtained by the workers. Being able to wear something synonymized with the power of royalty and wealth added another layer to the magic of charms. The accessibility and pervasiveness additionally added to the popularity.
Above anything else, charms are evidence on an individual and a life lived. Charms are added to bracelets to punctuate life events: a wedding, a birth of child, a trip, a tragedy. This year, a bracelet came through our studio to have a mask charm added to its collection. When the bracelet is passed on, it will carry the lived experiences of its owner, incarnated in charms.