A Short History of Charms, Amulets, and Pendants through the Years
Have you ever wondered when charm jewelry was created? When did we, as humans, begin wearing these personal, little tokens around our necks? Well, it seems like it all started with shells and teeth!
It’s no secret that at Starling we have a love affair with charms. Big charms, little charms, birthstone charms, diamond charms, engraved charms, birth flower charms, we love it all! As we layer up our own necklaces, we began to wonder– when did we start wearing charms as symbols and tokens as self expression? There’s something very special and personal about the things we choose to adorn ourselves with. Continue on to learn the wild and winding history of charms, and see how they have been accessorized throughout history.
First, we must put on our historian hats and learn about our ancestors. The oldest jewelry known to man is estimated to be from 110,000 BCE in Morocco, where drilled sea snail shells were discovered in an archaeological dig. The beads are thought to have served as amulets, also known as protection or good luck charms. From there, other drilled shells, animal teeth, and bone charms were found in Israel, Algeria, South Africa, France, and the Czech Republic, all estimated to be from 98,000 BCE to 28,000 BCE. It’s imagined that the beads found throughout the Stone Age were most commonly strung on pieces of animal sinew (pieces of tendon), a prevalent material found throughout the time period. In modern day Russia, bracelets made of engraved mammoth tusks were found that date back to 11,000 BCE.
Drilled sea snail shells are the first known charm worn by humans.
Heading into the Neolithic period, which ranged from 10,000-4,500 BCE, we see a design boom in jewelry as means of aesthetics and craftsmanship, using metal materials we more commonly associate with jewelry today. Notably, gold welded and worked objects were found in ancient Thracian civilization sites (modern day Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece) and in the Badarian culture of ancient Egypt. The Badarian people were among the first to use alluvial gold, which is gold that is found or panned for above ground, in rivers and streams. It is naturally tumbled, into smooth, shiny little nuggets and quickly became objects of desire. In addition to gold, drilled beads made from steatite (AKA soapstone) were discovered in the area. The finding of manufactured gold and steatite pieces are our first look at an elevated method of jewelry design and production, expanding the world of jewelry beyond shells and teeth.
Neolithic stone bead from an early settlement in Morrocan Sahara
In 3600 BCE, the Naqada culture in Southern Egypt began using materials like lapis lazuli, ivory, and obsidian for both jewelry and other objects and ornaments. The Naqada were also noted as the first culture thought to use symbols in jewelry design, which evolved into what we now know as hieroglyphs. Many of these amulets or good luck charms, were carved to resemble animals or symbols, and held significant symbolic meaning. Ancient Egyptian jewelry designs were frequently based on scarab beetles, birds, tigers, jackals, and antelopes. These animals carry deep significance within their culture, namely the scarab beetle. The scarab is considered one of the most powerful of amulets, representing the sun, protection, transformation, and rebirth. Ancient Egyptians are also believed to have created the first cameos, carving the faces of gods, goddesses, and royalty onto charms. Cameos are still a popular design in jewelry today.
Zhou Dynasty Jade Dragon
Around the same time period (
3600 BCE), nephrite jade jewelry and ornaments were being created in China, marking the beginning of jade as a favorite stone for the country. A spiritually significant stone, jade is believed to connect the wearer to their ancestors. It was also a means of showing class status, with jade being considered more valuable than precious metals. Brooches and pendants found from Ancient China were carved into popular symbols such as dragons and phoenixes, both animals representing protection and rebirth as well. We can see that this is a common theme amongst our predecessors!
Throughout the Bronze Age (3300 BCE - 1200 BCE), advanced jewelry making techniques, like embossing and enameling, became more common. The most famous pieces to come out of this era are the torc and the gorget, which were made by twisting metal into a spiral pattern. Torcs were open and able to be fastened to any part of the body, whereas gorgets were worn exclusively on the neck as a collar, appearing to be a rope of gold.
At the height of the Roman Empire in 117 CE, jewelry was extremely popular and sought after. With the increase of recorded history, we can see that jewelry designs became much more complex, and precious stones were highly prized. Necklaces were worn by all genders and were found throughout all different class levels. Pendants grew in popularity as they were ritualistically placed around the neck of a winner in a match, and usually were stamped with the face of the emperor. The women of the time were known for layering their jewelry– something we can relate to ;) Ancient Romans also wore adder stones, which were very rare. An adder stone is a stone that has a natural hole in it. They are believed to be incredibly lucky!
An ancient adder stone.
In the Dark Ages, the making and owning of jewelry drastically decreased. It was mainly something that nobles and royalty could afford to indulge in. However, we do have evidence of knights carrying pearl jewelry as good luck charms, believing the gem would keep them out of harm's way. As we travel forward into the Medieval times, the art and commerce of jewelry rises again, and is more attainable. The medieval period is known for being highly superstitious and religious, leading to more and more unique and meaningful charm jewelry.
Throughout the Renaissance, jewelry design flourishes once again, going hand in hand with the explosion of art in culture. We find it especially interesting that during the late 15th century, more women than ever held positions of power throughout Europe. However, charm jewelry began to slightly fall out of favor as superstitions lessened. Charms that were once worn to ward off evil were replaced with more mainstream religious symbolism, like crosses. Rumors spread of occult associations with charm bracelets– specifically, it was believed that Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, wore a bracelet that held powers. As well, Catherine wore spheres around her neck, filled with perfume, that she would become famous for. Does that count as a charm? We think it might!
15th Century Reliquary Pendant
Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici
Heading into the 18th century, women pinned tools for sewing to their aprons, attached by chains. They started out with practical little things like a magnifying glass or thimble, but started to create some charms just for design's sake. Charms could be found that represented hobbies, religion, and marital status. Throughout the Victorian era, Queen Victoria had a significant impact on the jewelry industry, as she notably created charms as individualized mementos, such as lockets with loved ones' photos or hair. She famously had a charm bracelet with a charm for each of her children, as well as a bracelet for mourning the death of Prince Albert. Her mourning bracelet had 16 charms, which held pictures, were engraved, and set with stones. Her influence grew and personalized charms became not only fashionable, but accessible to all with the rise of manufacturing.
Queen Victoria's Charm Bracelet
Bringing it back to more modern times, Tiffany’s, which opened in 1837, released their own charm bracelet in 1889– a simple heart charm hung from a dainty chain, design that is still popular today.
Overall, charms have maintained their status as beloved tokens, and are as personal and popular as ever. Thier symbolism and meanings allow us, the wearers, to initiate in self discovery, hold our sentiments close, and express ourselves. In this way, charms are sort of like magic, right?
Shop our top picks of good luck charms below!