The word ‘bracelet’ derives from the Greek word brachile, meaning ‘of the arm’, and since time immemorial bracelets have drawn attention to the arms, hands and wrists. The earliest known bracelet is the 70,000-year-old Paleolithic ‘Denisovan Bracelet’ from Siberia, made of green stone. Bracelets have been worn by different ethnic groups for adornment and for spiritual and religious reasons, the scarab bracelet representing rebirth and regeneration an important ancient Egyptian symbol. While early bracelets were often created from stone, bone, shells and other natural materials, over time precious metals and gemstones came to signify wealth and high status. Bracelets also made ideal gifts: for instance, in 1453 Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, gave her servants gold and silver bracelets at New Year.
Bracelets as stylish ornaments became more visible in dress from the late 1500s onwards – gold and gemstone jewels or multiple strands of pearls circling the wrist. These remained fashionable among the wealthy, although a parallel vogue arose for ribbon bracelets, which, being relatively inexpensive, may also have been worn by ordinary women: for example during the early 1600s narrow black ribbons were wound about the wrist, some extending to attach to a finger ring. Both pearl and jewelled bracelets remained fashionable for formal dress, while the mid 1700s witnessed a new ribbon style – matching bracelets of wider black or coloured silk, sometimes set with a semi-precious central stone and surrounded by paste brilliants.
After a phase of discreet jewellery in the decades around 1800, during the ‘Romantic’ era bold paired bracelets became common – dramatic jewellery inspired by historical styles, or sentimental pieces set with human hair or coloured stones spelling out romantic mottoes. Large cameo bracelets were popular in the 1860s and 1870s, complementing exuberant mid-Victorian fashions. In general, quality bracelets were much favoured for evening wear, being worn underneath, or over the top of long white evening gloves. With gold and diamonds becoming cheaper and more abundant from the late 1800s, family photographs show female ancestors wearing single or paired gold or gemstone-set bracelets as engagement or wedding presents. The Victorians also favoured silver for gifts, popularising dainty silver christening bracelets, still worn today. The 20th century encouraged cheap ‘costume jewellery’ and, reflecting eclectic art deco taste, African ‘slave bangles’ were high worn on the arm with sleeveless 1920s dance frocks. Charm bracelets were fashionable around the mid-1900s, a form originating with ancient bracelets suspending protective amulets: modern charm bracelets often have personal meaning or are simply worn for their decorative appeal.
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