One of the most versatile and universal of accessories, arm adornments have been worn by both men and women since the prehistoric era. Bracelets are often steeped in cultural significance, with symbolism that can vary depending on where you are in the world. And often, their only requisite function is to be beautiful.
Of course, bracelets can also be practical – from telling time to alerting others of a medical condition. They can denote relationships, such as the friendship bracelets worn in childhood, as well as meaningful heirlooms, like a cherished charm bracelet, a wedding bangle or something special inherited from a beloved grandmother.
Bracelets, arm bands and anklets have historically carried special meaning in various cultures. Ancient Egyptians were considered the first to wear bracelets solely for fashion, whereas Greek soldiers wore leather bracelets for the pragmatic reason of protecting their wrists during battle. Vikings and Celts wore arm rings as a rite of passage into adulthood, an oath of allegiance to the gods, and even as currency. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages onward that bracelets became more commonly associated with women.
For instance, in the South Asian diaspora, it’s traditional for a bride to wear multiple bangles on her wedding day, gifts from the family, and in China, baby girls were often given a bangle skillfully cut from a single piece of jade as protection from evil and to promote good health. In Western culture, bracelets can still carry sentimental or spiritual meaning, but are most often worn as stylish accessories to be removed at day’s end.
Early bracelets were crafted with organic materials, such as grass, wood, shells, hair and bone. Folk jewellery could be made from horn, teeth or beads. Later, metals like copper and brass were most often used, as well as gold and silver and platinum for fine jewellery. Bracelets have also incorporated man-made materials like glass, enamel and ceramic.
Let’s take a look at some of the more popular and enduring bracelet styles:
Bangles are generally rigid, formed of a complete hoop of round or oval shape, or covering the wrist only partially and known as penannular, sometimes hinged or spring-mounted for easy wearing and also of simple pull-on style. They can be made of plain gold or platinum or be adorned with diamonds, coloured gemstones, or engravings.
Slender versions may be worn singly, or enjoyed as multiples for their stackable wearability; chunkier bangles, especially those featuring a prominent raised design can be worn solo as more of a statement piece.
The most all-encompassing bracelet types range from symmetrical, asymmetrical, tapering, straight, undulating, foldable, plain or elaborately decorated with allover motifs. Typically, bracelets can be composed of articulated bombé or flat links and often have a convenient clasp closure.
Another most-coveted item to adorn the wrist is the classic line bracelet, designed entirely with a flowing row of diamonds or alternating with a series of coloured gemstones. Although this particular style dates back to the 1920s, the name “tennis bracelet” wasn’t dubbed as such until the 1970s, thanks to American tennis player Chris Evert. She famously wore bracelets during her matches, a novelty on the tennis court at that time. During the U.S. open in 1978, Evert noticed the bracelet she had been wearing had fallen off and play was stopped until it was found.
The original charm is thought to be the beneficent Egyptian “evil eye” bead worn to ward off the glare of evil, protecting the wearer by “charming” or deflecting malevolent spirits. It was adopted by many neighbouring cultures and is still prevalent today.
In the West, charms gained popularity during World War II with the return of soldiers from their time abroad, bringing home tiny, easy to carry gifts for wives and sweethearts. Post-war, charms were a popular memento used to represent travel experiences for tourists, later expanding to encompass other memorable occasions in life such as weddings, births and anniversaries. Delightful animal and good luck whimsies showcased the wearer’s personality, with endless options available.
Intriguingly, sometimes it manages to be both a practical timepiece AND a gem studded bracelet: a diamond-set hinged cover pops open to reveal a watch dial; a detachable diamond-set dial cover converts to a petite clip brooch; a case smoothly reverses to impress with diamonds; a strap can be entirely composed of multi-coloured gemstones.
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