Jewelry tells the story of our life. One jewelry type in particular - the charm, is most iconic for explaining life’s milestones in a single glance. Is there an Eiffel tower charm dangling from a bracelet? We know where you’ve been.
Charms are an early invention as evidenced from ancient African archeological sites dating back 75,000 years where shell adornments for early man have been discovered. Ancient Egyptians put these little treasures to work by using them for identification, and as totems of faith and luck. Of more contemporary relevance, charm bracelets became de rigueur for fashionable society ladies when Queen Victoria started a trend amongst European nobility in the 19th century.
One would think that tough times would quash the demand for charm bracelets. But they actually flourished throughout the Great Depression. During the 1920s and into the 1930s, platinum, gold and diamond accented charms were manufactured in abundance. Then, American teens and silver screen idols fueled the ardor for these miniature works of art during their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Film legends like Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Crawford kept these petite ornaments in the forefront of jewelry must-haves. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous charm bracelet from the early 1960s was chockablock with hints to what life was like in Camelot.
Goes Around - Comes Around
Fast forward to the 21st century and one may assume that charms have told all the stories they have to tell, causing jewelry fans to move on. A younger demographic today has never experienced those earlier charms created in their glory days of the mid-20th century. Instead, over the last decades, colorful bead charms have flourished among jewelry lovers. Similar to the way in which last century’s charms were collected, they can be self purchased or gifted one at a time. But that’s where the similarity ends. Bead charms are just colored rondelles after all. No one will ever lean in for a closer look and ask if you went to Florida when admiring a ceramic bead. But a little golden gator dangling coyly off a bracelet will strike up that conversation.
The undeniable aspect of self expression inherent to the story-telling in charms resonates with the collector who craves personalized jewelry. No two lives are the same, so no two charm bracelets will be either. This fact has reenergized collectors of all ages to embrace figurative charms that are actual objects of something identifiable. Real charms are making real headway in 2015.
The Power of One
Vintage and estate jewelers are a different breed than other luxury purveyors. Contemporary jewelry dealers rely on their brand’s ability to produce quantity to satisfy retailer’s demands around the country. Vintage and estate dealers rely on the complete opposite. Their goods were always painstakingly created to be one of a kind. The rarer the better. And every antique jewelry dealer is always on the hunt for that certain something that will never come around again.
One of our industry’s most reliable sources for quality vintage and antique jewelry is husband and wife co-owners at eFiligree. Veteran jewelry wholesalers, Tuvia and Dori Paul recently came into possession of a treasure trove of new old-stock charms. They immediately knew they were onto something rare. Their source revealed that the lot of gold charms, some with gemstones or diamonds, some with enamel, had been stored and forgotten for decades. While it’s not exactly clear how old they are, the charm themes and other information date them to the 1940s-1950s, with some being earlier.
Only after carefully examining the charms one after another, did they grasp exactly what they had. The level of detailed workmanship in these miniature sculptures was extraordinary even for the era in which they were produced. Several of the clever charms boast movable components. A Jonah and the Whale charm exposes a man’s head popping out from the wide mouth of a big fish. A doctor’s bag charm opens to reveal a pink enameled newborn inside.
A Beguiling Hoard
The subject matter of some of the charms helps date them. For example, a nicely detailed boot charm boasts a smiling kitty emerging from the top. Children from the 1930s and 1940s recognize this symbolism as Puss in Boots. Another charm was puzzling until research revealed that a little golden fox and stork (or crane) depicts an Aesop’s Fable popular with children in the 1920s.
In this hoard were more readily recognizable themed charms like various animals, and sports equipment. Wildly popular bar charms, from the mid century, like cocktail glasses and even a mini-bar amuse. But what was this? There amongst the lot glistened a gold and white enameled toilet seat, perfect in its cheeky wonderfulness. There’s a paint bucket and brush covered with red paint-like enamel - pull it out to read “Paint the Town Red”. One can only imagine the intended recipient’s delight receiving this darling treat which pairs perfectly with a pretty little champagne bottle charm.
Even seasoned antique jewelry wholesalers like the Pauls were taken aback by the sheer quantity and unexpected themes portrayed in their cache. With each charm, they stood mesmerized. Dori was flummoxed by “the sheer quantity of them and the fact that each one was more unique or funny or brazen than the last.” She’s not alone in this adoration. They’ve shown some of these tiny treats to special clients. “Customers love the depth and breadth of them - marveling at an old desk, or a diner counter with miniature bar stools, to carnival rides and on and on.”
Why Retailers Love Them
One retailer, Eve Celsi, at Maloys Jewelry in Portland, OR got first looks at the charms. “From an antique jewelry dealer’s perspective, viewing Tuvia Paul’s collection is about as close to time travel as I can ever expect. This type of charm, with moving parts, or enamel, or both, is incredibly rare in any condition.” The rarity factor plus good condition enhances their appeal and value. “To see them in original, mint, perfect condition like this, and in multiples, no less, is pretty much unheard of. Tuvia has charms I have never seen before in any condition… charms that aren’t even in any of the books,” Celsi explains.
Precious metal charms are still being manufactured today of course. But the vintage charms have a special . . . charm to them, Celsi found. “Even in cases where Tuvia has multiples of the same design, the lettering, or the expressions on the tiny hand painted faces, are slightly different on each one. They are full of the personality of the artisan that made them.”
It’s no surprise that an expert who understands the value in these charms would fall in love with some. “Several of the charms wound up in my own personal collection,” Celsi confessed. “I know I will never see a selection like this again. One is the tiny gold Puss in Boots. Besides that, [I acquired] one of the oddest charms I’ve ever seen; a little enameled rotisserie chicken, spinning on a spit in an oven.”
Along with beautiful charms of painted birds, and musical instruments including a moving accordion charm, Celsi is drawn to the quirky ones like the toilet seat charm resplendent in its white enamel. “One of my favorites is a small round shadow box. When you push the buttons on the side, a pair of silhouettes moves together and kiss.”
This remarkable discovery of new-old stock charms has spawned some fresh devotees, Celsi discovered. “Even people that aren’t really into charms, or sadly think that ‘charms’ mean beads, are completely delighted by the artistry and wit of these tiny, charming time capsules.”