Magazine article The Spectator

Charm School

Magazine article The Spectator

Charm School

Article excerpt

When I was a bridesmaid, at the age of eight, I was given two silver charms. One was of a ballet dancer, en pointe, in a full skirt, like a little Degas. The other was a tiny cathedral which opened to show a bride, a groom, a vicar and rows of pews. My spirits still skip at the memory of it.

The art historian Deborah Alun-Jones was mesmerised to see the story of her mother's life recorded in the charms hanging from her bracelet. There was a miniature Vespa, a fryingpan to remind her of burnt early marital breakfasts, a lawnmower to signify home. The best charms are dazzlingly ingenious and intimate.

At worst, they are lumps of design bling. The initials of fashion houses or hearts engraved with a brand name are especially lowering. By contrast, the little poker chip charms given to Marlene Dietrich by Frank Sinatra were a wonderfully witty gift.

Charms should have a significance beyond their weight in gold or silver. To the ancient Egyptians they were a form of identity tag for the afterlife. To Christians in Roman times the silver fish symbols hidden under clothing were a secret signal. In the Middle Ages charms and amulets were hung from the belts of knights to denote family status.

The upper classes lost their fascination with charms after the Enlightenment. Suddenly they were regarded as superstitious trinkets fit only for the uneducated and the foolish.

It was Queen Victoria who reinvented charm jewellery as an expression of family values.

She hung small lockets with pictures of family members from a bracelet. Society followed suit, wearing their familial devotion on their sleeves.

These lockets became heirlooms, jewellery as a form of family genealogy.

A faint air of mustiness clung to charm jewellery until the second world war. Then, soldiers returning from Pacific islands brought back delightful jewels embedded in carved metals for their girlfriends.

The joy and friskiness of these tokens prevails. In the last few years the charm bracelet has become the signature piece for companies such as Louis Vuitton, Theo Fennell and Tiffany. Fennell pays tribute to the sheer personality of this type of jewellery: 'Charms are so, well, charming. They can be sentimental, ironic, loving, tongue in cheek, quirky or vulgar.

Part of their point is their arbitrariness. They act as an aide-memoire of a life and because they can be so apt they are a perfect present. …

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