[Dr. Kelly Marino is a Lecturer of History at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT and the Coordinator of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Her research is on Modern US History, and she is writing a book about college students, alumni, and the women's suffrage campaign.]
[This is a D.F. Briggs Carmen Bracelet. All others stamped Pitman and Keeler American Queen.]
Today, if you search the popular artisan and craft website Etsy.com, you will come across over 4 million hits for the term “personalized”. Consumers can add initials or a special message to just about any item from jewelry to pens and pencils. Monogramming and personalized gifts have become an entire retail genre with stores devoted to producing these products. Many large retailers even offer the option of personalization for a fee with in-store and online orders. Personalized jewelry, a fad that remains popular during the holiday gift-giving season especially, dates back centuries, pushed forward during sentimental times in the Victorian period and the World Wars. In the United States, one piece of personalized jewelry that has had a significant influence on fashion history is the monogrammed expandable bracelet.
Often gold-plated or rolled gold sterling silver with an elastic chain, the popular early twentieth-century women’s expansion bracelet came in many styles, including a solid embossed or engraved centerpiece in a circular, oval, rectangular, or square shape adorned by cameo, jewels, mother-of-pearl, or rhinestones. Adult bracelets were only a few inches wide at rest but appealed to women of different sizes as they could be easily stretched to fit almost any wrist. During World War I and World War II, these fashionable yet versatile bracelets were particularly popular among Americans in the US, becoming a common keepsake for soldiers to give to their girlfriends, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, or grandmothers as a token of remembrance. The bracelets significantly influenced jewelry and fashion trends, with metal adjustable expansion wristbands becoming mainstream in inexpensive watchmaking by the 1900s.
Queen Victoria’s Influence
The concept of expansion bracelets was first conceived and popularized during the Victorian era. As an influential role model in Europe and the United States, Queen Victoria of the British Empire shaped jewelry trends. Her tastes spurred three distinct phases in jewelry making as women tried to copy her looks: the “Romantic Era” (1837-60), “Grand Era” (1861-1880), and “Aesthetic Era” (1880-1901). The “mourning jewelry” that the queen wore during the Grand Era while grieving the death of her husband, Prince Albert, was especially influential. Mourning jewelry was frequently gold-toned or dark colored, personalized or monogrammed, and given as a gift in remembrance of a loved one. It could also include a locket or compartment to store a photograph or strands of the deceased’s hair. These trends resonated into the twentieth century: personalized or monogrammed pieces remained popular, as did the tradition of wearing jewelry to remember a loved one, particularly in times of war.
The Rise of the “Carmen” and “American Queen” Bracelets
Cosmopolitan Americans copied European fashions to appear more advanced, cultured, and stylish. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was still establishing itself as a viable and credible nation on the global scene, and women did not want to lag behind their sisters across the Atlantic. Jewelers imitated international styles and adapted what they learned to innovate their fashions. Expansion bracelets, for example, were first created in Massachusetts, with excitement for the new accessory spreading from New England to the rest of the nation. Initially produced in large numbers in Attleboro, MA at the turn of the twentieth century, the bracelets were marketed as adornment for babies; in light of the product’s success, however, marketing was expanded to young girls and, eventually, adult women.
It is difficult to identify all of the various companies that produced these bracelets as some did not feature a maker’s mark. The earliest and largest producers included the D. F. Briggs Company, perhaps the first developer of the bracelets, as well as the Pitman and Keeler Company. The D. F. Briggs Company was established in 1882 when Briggs opened a shop to create metal items, such as bars, chain trimmings, eyeglass and vest chains, plate swivels, rings, and watch materials. As the company expanded and evolved, it began to produce new products, including expansion bracelets and other jewelry. Eventually, the company name was changed to Briggs, Bates, & Bacon Co. Their unique bracelets came to be known as “Carmen” (or “Carmelita”) bracelets, with one source citing Briggs’ daughter as the inspiration.
Also from Attleboro, McRae and Keeler (renamed Pitman & Keeler in 1907) produced its line of expansion bracelets, the “American Queen,” which were possibly the most popular version. Established in 1893, the company initially manufactured bracelets, compacts, and vanity cases. One of the best-selling designs (and subsequently hardest to find because of its enduring popularity) features a vibrant, heart-shaped gemstone in blue, green, purple, or red complemented by a rolled gold band and setting. The gemstone reflected light in the way a Swarovski crystal does today.
These bracelets grew in popularity across the early twentieth century as jewelry never fell out of favor, even in times of national hardship. Sporting an expansion bracelet remained a luxury that many women refused to give up despite periods of economic challenge and restriction, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s. A simple piece of jewelry, such as an ornate metal bracelet, was durable, and versatile, and could be added to a bland dress or another outfit to make it more stylish. During WWII, Pitman and Keeler even started making matching necklaces and bracelet sets in response to consistent demand. Companies were producing the bracelets nationally, in places like New York and Rhode Island, and internationally, in England. Massachusetts’ product was a widespread success.
“Sweetheart” Jewelry during the World Wars
To keep their bracelets selling as the twentieth century continued, jewelry manufacturers, including the two key New England companies, began marketing expansion bracelets and associated accessories in line with the growing “sweetheart” jewelry trend that had taken off during the world wars. Sweetheart jewelry was a genre of jewelry designed for soldiers to buy for their female loved ones to wear as a token of connection and remembrance while they were serving overseas. Sweetheart expansion bracelets worn by young women were aesthetically pleasing and also a symbol of patriotism and pride, declaring to all who saw that the wearer’s loved one was in service. Popular expansion bracelet styles during the world wars included a monogrammed version with the receiver’s or couple’s initials as well as a heart-shaped locket version for photo storage.
Although interest in these bracelets peaked during World War II, they continued to be produced and sold in various capacities into the 1950s and, in such forms as rhinestone and faux diamond bracelets, even the ‘60s and ‘70s before trailing off in the late twentieth century. Today, this New England product remains a desirable and wearable fashion find among collectors and vintage jewelry enthusiasts who still buy and sell them at antique stores and estate auctions. The more ornate bracelets are increasingly difficult to find, especially sets with matching necklaces or in the original box. However, they still surface for sale on the Internet, are passed down in families, or are discovered in vintage jewelry boxes. Personalized jewelry given as gifts to loved ones during important moments remains a popular tradition as does the use of expandable bands in jewelry making that can be manipulated to fit wearers wrists of various sizes. Watches in particular are still sold using the same concept and similar design as the sweetheart bracelets even today.
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[Next series starts Monday,
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