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History on a Wrist: 'Charmed Bracelets'

Detail from the cover of <i>Charmed Bracelets</i>.
Detail from the cover of Charmed Bracelets.

From kitschy miniatures of the Eiffel Tower to priceless gem-studded figurines, charm bracelets reveal a lot about the people who wear them. In her new book, Charmed Bracelets, jewelry designer Tracey Zabar explores the enduring appeal of the jingly adornment.

Since ancient times, humans have carried talismans to repel evil and bring good luck. Tracing the accessory back to those early origins, Charmed Bracelets follows the history of the bauble through its 1950s heyday, its fallout during the women's movement and up to its recent resurgence.

Zabar, whose own charmed creations are sold at Kate Spade and Barneys, talks with NPR's Jacki Lyden.

Excerpt: Introduction to 'Charmed Bracelets'

The Appeal of Charms

There is something innately charming about a charm bracelet. Some people might love the signature jingle and jangle such a bracelet makes when the wearer is in motion, while others enjoy the fact that you really need to get up close and personal to examine each quirky little charm dangling from the links. But for me, the most irresistible and alluring thing about a charm bracelet is its ability to tell a story unique to its owner. Consider a charm bracelet "history on a wrist"—there is nothing more personal or symbolic. Laden with tiny figurines, fond remembrances, and sweet forget-me-nots collected over the years, charm bracelets chronicle small moments in a life lived.

Truly, to wear one is to wear your history upon your sleeve. And while the adornments women choose have always been an expression of personal style, few ornaments, barring the engagement ring, have held as dear a place in women's hearts—or create as big a commotion, both literally and figuratively—as the charm bracelet. Walk down the street wearing one, and a woman will stop you in your tracks to share stories about her own treasured charm bracelet, her mother's, or even her grandmother's. Charm bracelets encourage a connection. Like quilts or samplers, they are a woman's art and such a "girl thing."

Jewelry advertises the wearer's status and social standing—her power, position, and wealth. It is a way to flaunt, to be fashionable, seductive, or elegant. For its part, the charm bracelet is an oh-so-feminine autobiography on a chain. Charm bracelets express who a woman is in a subtle way, simultaneously giving a whimsical little nod to her style while also serving as a record of remembrance of her life. In the most literal sense of the word, charms work magic on the viewer. They can be feminine or funny, glamorous or girlish, classic or kitschy. Though tiny in their proportions, these sweet tokens make a grand statement about the wearer's taste and humor. "To charm" also means to attract, and these bracelets do exactly that. They draw the eye to one's wrist, where a compelling tale unfolds. And 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.

My own love affair with charm bracelets began ages ago with an heirloom I coveted. Alas, it was unobtainable to me back then, but it sparked a fire within that hasn't stopped burning since. Determined to wear a charm bracelet I loved, I set out to make my own. The first time I wore one, a woman begged me to sell it to her right off my wrist, right there in the middle of a New York City bus. After that, anytime I wore one of my bracelets, fabulous, gorgeous women, young and old, insisted on giving me their telephone numbers and taking mine in the hopes of acquiring a bracelet. Soon I realized I had struck an emotional goldmine and hurried to make four more charm bracelets, which became the beginning of my very first jewelry collection for the store Barneys New York. A business was born, and I became a jewelry designer.

I wear a charm bracelet nearly every day now -- I have dozens -- and people still stop me on the street to chat about whichever one I'm wearing or share tales of bracelets they have known, loved, or lost. Their enchanting and sentimental stories still give me goose bumps. I hope you'll feel the same way about the bracelets you see on these pages.

Excerpted from 'Charmed Bracelets,' by Tracey Zabar, 2004. Used by permission of Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.