Bracelets, cylindrical-shaped ornaments worn encircling the wrist or upper arm, have been one of the most popular forms of ornamentation since prehistoric times. Incredibly varied, bracelets are a universal form of jewelry. Historically and culturally, they have been worn singly or in multiples by both genders. Bracelets have been used for protective and decorative purposes, in rituals, and to indicate one’s social status.
Materials for bracelets are innumerable. Peoples from all cultures across the globe have used indigenous or imported materials, man-made, and natural materials to make them. While the majority are made from metals, they also have been made from insect secretions (such as lac), rattan, wood, feathers, tortoiseshell, horn, teeth, tusks, feathers, leather, and stone. Man-made materials include glass, faience, enamel, ceramic, and plastic. Ancient Egyptians used bone and pebbles, adorned with finely worked beads and pendants of jasper, turquoise, alabaster, lapis lazuli, cornelian, and feldspar. In Eastern cultures, folk jewelry was often made of horn, brass, beads, and copper, while more expensive and finer quality bracelets were designed of mother-of-pearl, gold, and silver. Skillful jewelers in China were able to make bracelets cut from a single piece of jade. In India, the patwa (jewelry maker) often creates bracelets from braiding, knotting, twisting, or wrapping yarns made of cotton, silk, wool, or metallic fibers.
In the early 2000s bracelets are being made of soft or hard glass (such as borosilicate). While these glass bracelets can be made from molds or be free-formed, the latter process is slower and not nearly as precise. Microelectronics used in some modern bracelets can now produce movement, light, and sound.
There are many different styles of bracelets and where they are worn on the body determines what they are called. For instance, bracelets worn above the elbow are called “armlets,” but “anklets” when worn around the ankle. The main design consideration for a bracelet is sizing; it must be neither so large that it slips off the hand when it is relaxed, nor so small that it cannot be slid over the hand or fit around the wrist. In general, there are three different types of bracelets: link, slip-on, and hinged. Link styles are sized to fit the wrist comfortably and to allow the links to drape flexibly. Slip-on styles are rigid shapes, and may be either open-ended or a closed circle or other shape. According to one source, solid circle or oval bracelets should be from 8% to 914 inches in circumference. In the early twenty-first century, this is the most common style of the three types. Hinged styles require a hinge and locking catch to allow the bracelet to be opened and yet fit the wrist snugly at a recommended 6% to 7 inches around with an opening of 1 to 1% inches for the wrist. The bracelet should have rounded ends in order to fit the wrist comfortably. Solid hinged bracelets should be made from a thick gauge of metal (from 12 to 14 gauge) to maintain the necessary springiness of the form. Stones inserted in bracelets should rank at least 5 or 6 on the Mohs’ scale, to prevent their damage.
Every period in history has had an impact on bracelet styles. Styles can range in complexity—from simply sawing off part of a mollusk shell to the intricate designs evident in East Asian metalworking. During the twentieth century, bangles, charm bracelets, and identification bracelets were some of the most popular styles.
Bangles are rigid bracelets with no closures, and may be worn singly or in multiples. Most bangles are made from bold colors or are decorated with numerous types of repeating motifs.
Charm bracelets are a special and unique type of jewelry with a long history dating back to Ancient Egypt. Charms were meant to ward off evil or to endow the wearer with special powers. The original charm bracelet was the Egyptian eye bead, attached to a circlet, used to charm, fascinate, or reflect the malevolent intention of others. Its spiritual function became so popular, it was adopted by neighboring cultures, and it is still worn today in many Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, charm bracelets gained popularity during World War II. Made of silver, gold, or silver-plated metals, enamel, plastic, and shell, most were inexpensive and mass-produced. The charms included military insignia, flags, planes, and wings worn by women in recognition of those serving in the armed forces. Postwar prosperity turned the inexpensive charm bracelets into fine quality jewelry made of medium to heavy gold links on which charms could be attached.
In the late 1950s, charms representing one’s travel experiences became fashionable, and there is still a wide range of charms available. Like quilts, letters, and journals, these types of bracelets have a narrative quality that define some of the more important moments in a woman’s life, or share information about her values, beliefs, interests, and personality.
Identification, or ID, bracelets are twentieth-century link bracelets with text engraved onto a flat metal plate. The text could be one’s name or nickname, or it could contain important information about an individual’s medical condition. One fashion trend in the United States has been stylish medical-alert bracelets, which have the primary function of alerting medical professionals to special medical considerations like diabetes or an allergy to penicillin. In the early 2000s, they also have an aesthetic appeal, as some of these bracelets are made with crystal, sterling silver, and 14-karat gold-filled beads, hooked onto a stainless steel medical-alert tag.
After neck ornaments, bracelets for the wrist, arm, or ankle are perhaps the oldest form of jewelry. One of the first written records of humans wearing bracelets is in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible mentions that there are three types of bracelets: one worn exclusively by men, one worn only by women, and one that may be worn by either sex. Although bracelets are mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures, their distinctive characteristics are not described. Some of the oldest bracelet artifacts were constructed of bronze and gold and date back to the Bronze Age. Most were penannular, or oval, with expanding, trumpet-shaped ends. The gold bracelets were typically unadorned, and hammered and bent into shape, while bronze bracelets were decorated with patterns and designs. At about this same time, German and Scandinavian warriors often wore spiral armlets for decorative and protective purposes. These armlets covered the entire forearm. In pre-Columbian America, indigenous artisans made bracelets from gold, precious minerals, and rock crystal.
In Ancient Egyptian tombs, strings of gold beads, hoops, and single, hinged bracelets have been discovered. Many of the bracelets made from plain or enameled metals were unadorned by stones. During the First Dynasty, bracelets worn by royalty were made of rectangular beads called serekhs, with turquoise, gold, and blue-glazed compositions. In Ancient Minoan and Mycenaean periods, bracelets were made of sheet metal and had elaborate loop-in-loop chains. Ancient Assyrians and Greeks often had two types of bracelets: coiled spirals in the form of interlocking snakes and stiff penannular hoops with enameled sphinxes, lions’ heads, or rams’ heads. In the Iron Age these spiral forms were common in Europe as well. Scythian nobles wore rigid gold bracelets with animal motifs around the eighth century B.C.E. The Scythians, a group of powerful, nomadic tribes of southeastern Europe and Asia, were known for their fine metalwork-ing and artistic style.
The Etruscans were among the first to create bracelets with separate, hinged panels, a style still popular in the early twenty-first century. Ancient Roman soldiers often were given gold bracelets to indicate their valor in battle. In Great Britain during the Celtic period, men often wore massive protective armlets and serpent-shaped bracelets. These may have been an adaptation of German and Scandinavian bracelets worn during the Bronze Age and used to protect against sword attacks. Toward the end of the pagan period in Europe, plaited silver bracelets and intertwisted strands of silver wire became popular. A decline in interest in bracelets occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, probably due to the fact that Christian beliefs discouraged adornments, as they suggested an “unhealthy regard for personal vanity” (Trasko, p. 27). The Renaissance focus on humanism prompted a renewed interest in bracelets and other types of jewelry.
Bracelets have been worn by cultures all over the world since ancient times. Bracelets and other forms of jewelry were considered especially important in warm geographic regions, such as India and Africa, where few items of clothing were worn. Although both genders historically have worn bracelets, they seem more typically associated with women, especially in contemporary times. Cultural variations may be seen in the wearing of bracelets, for example, in the number of bracelets worn. In the United States, wearing one bracelet is common; however many Eastern cultures favor wearing several bracelets on one wrist. Some cultures in India wear anklets and armlets, as well as bracelets, while this is not as common in Western nations. In addition, Westerners often view bracelets as transitory, removing them at the end of the day. Married women in India, however, wear conch and glass bangles for life. They are broken only if the women becomes a widow.
While many cultural examples of bracelets abound, the intricacy of meanings behind bracelets are found among the people of Timor, a remote island in Indonesia. In Timor, bracelets are natural, stylized, or abstract. Using the lost-wax process, which requires a new mold for each bracelet, ensures a one-of-a-kind result. Timorese bracelets, as family heirlooms or household treasures, may indicate a marriage alliance, social status, and serve as protective amulets or as important artifacts for ritual dances and other ceremonies. In premodern times, bracelets also were badges awarded for the taking of heads. The Timorese have special bracelets for fertility, life cycle and life crisis ceremonies, and other important cultural rituals. Timorese men wear the most spectacular bracelets; the women’s are similar in style, but smaller in size. Many bracelets display a traditional symbol indicating one’s relationship to a specific Timorese house or family, called an uma.
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