[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
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
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
“Sweetheart” Jewelry during the
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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Bracelet." Jewelry Making Journal (blog). Rena Klingenberg,
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Mother of Pearl & Sterling Silver Base Sweetheart Bracelet.” Zanathia. 2021.
series starts Monday,
do you think?]