A Charmed Life: Four Stories of Family through Timeless Bracelets

Passed down through generations, every charm bracelet has its own special meaning within its baubles
by Katherine Snow Smith | Photography By Bryan Reagan

Long before life’s momentous events were posted on Instagra or even foisted upon unsuspecting dinner guests via Kodak slide carousels — they were embedded in charm bracelets. A history of sorts, dangling from a wrist, that makes for a beautiful entry point for sharing special stories.

Little gold booties with blue enamel on the toes represent a newborn boy; a tiny gold album spinning on a miniature record player marks a Sweet 16. Charm bracelets were in their heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, and while most charms at the time weren’t custom, they were still handmade, and production was limited. Many charms from this era have intricate moving pieces, like a lever that moves Parisian can-can dancers’ legs, or keys of a typewriter that move up and down.

Today, you can find mass-market charms at the mall or the airport, but the versions of decades ago are a rarer find. Many are only on vintage bracelets passed through generations or at antique shops, estate sales, and trunk shows. Plenty of women in Raleigh have kept up the tradition by making their own bracelets or proudly wearing their mother’s or grandmother’s.

And in a summer when we can finally travel, see far-flung friends again, and have a chance to build joyous new memories, it’s worth reconsidering the art of collecting charms. Here are four stories.

50 Years of Friendship

When Raleigh native Ellen DeRosset Bassett celebrated her 50th birthday at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, her friends planned a sentimental group gift: each brought a charm representing something from their friendship. Throughout the night, the birthday girl received individually wrapped baubles from various stages of her life. “It was so touching,” says Bassett. “All of them were so personal.”

Now, 50 charms fill a very special bracelet, including an apple from a New York roommate, a motorboat from a fellow Camp Seafarer counselor, an airplane from a traveling buddy, and a little silver swimsuit from a lifelong friend she met in the dressing room at Belk, of all places. “This was the most incredible gift. It’s stuffed with so many great memories,” Bassett says. “It makes me feel loved when-
ever I wear it.”

Family Heritage

“When I hear a charm bracelet jingling, it makes me think of my grandmother, Gina,” says another Raleighite, who prefers anonymity. “She was a ton of fun with big blue eyes.” She started her own charm bracelet as a young adult after her grandmother died; an aunt inherited Gina’s bracelet, but this woman received a gold charm engraved with her own birthdate to start to build her own memories.

Over the years, she’s collected something special from each member of her family for a wrist full of charms from the people she loves most. There’s a horse on a disk, made from a pin her mother was given as a member of the Fillies, an organization that helped with the Kentucky Derby. Both grandfathers are represented — one by his fraternity pin from medical school, the other with his class ring from pharmacy school. She had her great grandfather’s watch fob made into a charm, and had disks engraved with her son and daughter’s birth dates.

Mother-Daughter Histories

Another woman in Raleigh started her own bracelet as a young girl, and over the decades it’s been imbued with meaning. There’s a thumbnail-sized glass dome holding a mustard seed, a reference to the Bible passage, that she received for confirmation. There’s a well to celebrate her graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and scales of justice to commemorate law school graduation; baby shoes represent her son’s birth. Many charms came from her travels: a gondola from Venice, a beer stein with a hinged lid from Munich, and a little gold mermaid from Denmark, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. “This is the story of my life in a way,” she said.

When her mother passed away, she inherited her bracelet. On it, the lid on the grand piano opens, a roof lifts off the Swiss chalet to reveal a tiny bed, and pieces of a camera move and click. It brings back memories from her childhood: “I’d beg my mother to let me wear her charm bracelet to church and I’d sit there the en-
tire time and play with it,” she says. “That’s how I’d entertain myself.”

An Unknown Friend

Another woman was devastated 50 years ago when the bracelet she’d had since childhood was stolen. Her baby ring, confirmation cross, and trip souvenirs were irreplaceable. But decades later, fate conspired to return it to her — in a way.

“One day at an antique show, I saw a bracelet that had belonged to a most intriguing woman — one who, like me,
apparently loved sports and travel,” she says. One charm was marked Africa 1900, another was from Capri, Italy. “From ships to foreign countries to a sporty car, I thought she was such an interesting person,” says the new owner.“She even had a champagne icing down in a bucket and a magnifying glass.” Since then, she has added charms she has bought for herself to the bracelet started by the woman she now considers her “unknown friend.”

“I think she just might look down and smile every now and then that I have her bracelet,” she says. “Sometimes we have a unique and special bond with strangers.”

These days, it’s tempting to collect and share memories with our smartphones and social media — but those digital memories can be fleeting. So this summer, put down the phone and start collecting old-fashioned souvenirs: pick up a seashell, send someone a postcard, or even keep an eye out for a new, old charm at a flea market. Whether displayed on a wrist or in your home, these objects have a way of inviting conversation, of welcoming friends and loved ones into the memories we hold dear.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue.