Bracelets, bangles, cuffs, armlets, straps and buckles – all different styles of jewellery designed to be worn around the wrist and normally grouped under the heading of bracelet. The word originates from the Latin for arm, ‘brachium’. It became ‘bracel’ in Old French, with the diminutive form becoming ‘bracelet’. Women and men have worn bracelets from thousands of years, with an early version dating from 40,000 years ago. I always think about those beautiful gold cuff and torc bracelets seen in exhibitions about the Celts, worn by both women and men.
We have come to use the word ‘bracelet’ to mean a linked or flexible item which is done up around the wrist with a clasp or hinge while ‘bangle’ is used to cover jewellery which is rigid, either able to be slipped over the hand without a closure or joined with a clasp. Some bangles are not joined into a complete circle, like a cuff. I am going to talk about both types of jewellery over the next few blogs, starting with bracelets.
From the 17th to 18th centuries, bracelets were designed to be worn as matching pairs and many could be joined together to form a short necklace. Few such pairs have remained intact. We do have single bracelets though. While many were made in gold, there were less expensive materials used. One such material was pinchbeck. Pinchbeck, a gold substitute which was an alloy of 87% copper and 13% zinc, was developed by Christopher Pinchbeck in about 1720 and used by him and his sons in England for some decades, ending around the 1840s when electro-gilding was developed. Pinchbeck was used for those customers who couldn’t afford gold or who didn’t want to risk their valuable gold jewellery when travelling. There were other alternatives to pinchbeck developed, particularly in France.
The one below is a beautiful example of a Georgian bracelet. It is made of gold, which has been woven into a band. It has a clasp with gorgeous cannetille work surrounding a large chalcedony cabochon. Cannetille work was thin wires of metal, in this case gold, coiled into various shapes, sometimes welded onto thin plates. It was widespread from 1815 to 1840 in particular and was popular because it used smaller amounts of gold than previous jewellery designs but still enabled larger ornate pieces to be designed. This period was after the Napoleonic wars when gold became hard to acquire in Europe and England.
A similar style of bracelet is next, also with a gold woven band and a cannetille decorated clasp, this time set with coloured paste stones.
According to Bennett and Mascetti, a typical style of bracelet in the 1840s period was the serpent coiled around the wrist. You can see this style of bracelet in many of the paintings around this date. The more expensive versions were made of royal blue enameled hinged segments so that the bracelet could be worn without a clasp. The head of the snake was usually set with diamonds or was pave set with turquoise. The eyes were red gems, either rubies or garnets. Less expensive versions were made of gold also but were not enamelled and usually had a clasp in the shape of the snake‘s head set with turquoise or other gems.
An excellent reference book for antique jewellery is “Understanding Jewellery’ by David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti. In my next blog, I will look at Victorian bracelets.