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The origin of the term 'bracelet' stems from the Greek word brachile meaning 'of the arm', via the Old French bracel. A bracelet is also a small brace or bracer (an arm-guard used by archers).
In this article, we’ll be exploring the history of bracelets, as well as the different types and the symbolic meaning behind them.
A bracelet is an article of jewellery that is worn around the wrist. They can be associated with anything from a simple functional use like holding an identity tag or piece of information, to being worn for decorative or even symbolic purposes.
Like most jewellery, the bracelet has diverse and fascinating uses and meaning.
If a bracelet is a single, inflexible loop, it is often called a bangle. When it is worn around the ankle it is called an ankle bracelet or anklet. Even a boot bracelet is used to decorate boots.
Bracelets can be manufactured from metal, leather, cloth, plastic, bead or other materials, and jewellery bracelets sometimes contain jewels, rocks, wood, shells, crystals, metal, or plastic hoops, pearls and many more materials.
The history of bracelets is long and fascinating and evolved out of the fundamental, and quite practical, needs of early humans. Bracelets evolved initially out of a desire to have portable methods of protection and empowerment in the face of great unknowns as humanity evolved.
The creating of symbolism and story evolved to create and strengthen the bonds of friendship, community and spiritual beliefs. From an early date, it was worn as a protection from the dangers of life and as humankind evolved developed into a mark of status or rank.
In this way, bracelets were special pieces that could tell stories of their own and act as reminders of important memories, experiences or beliefs. A bracelet might have been made or given to commemorate a special event, as a symbol of protection, or to represent a connection to or protection by nature or a spirit animal.
Because of their significance, they were skilfully crafted using natural materials and traditional methods to ensure they lasted the lifetime of their wearers, growing in character and depth of meaning as they accompanied and protected you through life. Atlas is about a return to this foundational use and purpose, not just preserving traditional techniques but the depth of meaning and purpose once embodied in bracelets to create a stylish new look that connects one to this ancestral wisdom and practice.
This amazing illustration by Mark Nerys describes the history and development of bracelets, going all the way back to 9000 B.C. – a return to these traditions is what Atlas is all about.
Interestingly, we are now also learning that the history of bracelets, and jewellery in general, is even more ancient than we once thought. More recently, archaeologists have found bracelets made of beads fashioned from the shells of Nautilus pompilius – a South Pacific mollusc – that date back 42,000-years in a cave on the island of Timor.
A Paleolithic bracelet was also found in 2008 by Russian archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of Novosibirsk. Working at the site of Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, they uncovered artefacts, including a bracelet, that was carbon-dated to around 40,000 BP.
Stone Age style was all about strange animal necklaces and bracelets that were used as personal talismans. The first humans to cross the ocean from Asia to Australia fashioned amulets and bracelets from the bones, teeth and shells of the unfamiliar creatures they discovered on islands along the way.
The history of Egyptian bracelets dates back to 5000 BCE. They first used materials like bones, stones and woods and were mainly used for religious and spiritual purposes and the Scarab Bracelet is one of the most recognized symbols of ancient Egypt. The scarab represented rebirth and regeneration and carved scarabs were worn as bracelets as well as being wrapped into the linen bandages of mummies.
In Greece, the bracelet was a symbol of power and strength derived from the ones worn by warriors. Greek soldiers often donned metal and leather cuffs or wraps of leather on their wrists and arms for protection during battle. This was later also used by the Romans and the Celts as well.
Occasionally, a bracelet was also worn to signify that a particular warrior had shown great bravery in battle and eventually it was also worn for decorative reasons, rather than just for protection in war.
Ancient Roman soldiers often were given gold bracelets to indicate their valour in battle and the Etruscans were among the first to create bracelets with separate, hinged panels, a style still popular today.
And In Great Britain during the Celtic period, men often wore massive protective armlets and serpent-shaped bracelets. These were most likely an adaptation from the German and Scandinavian bracelets worn during the Bronze Age that were used to protect against sword attacks. Towards the end of the pagan period in Europe, plaited silver bracelets and intertwisted strands of silver wire became popular.
The Middle Ages saw a decline in interest in bracelets in Europe and this was probably due to the fact that Christian beliefs discouraged adornments. They were thought to suggest an unhealthy regard for personal vanity and any jewellery worn in medieval Europe was used to reflect the hierarchical and status-conscious nature of society at that time. Royalty and the nobility wore gold, silver and precious gems. Lower ranks of society wore base metals, such as copper or pewter.
Symbolism and empowerment were still important factors in bracelets, and most jewellery designs, and many bracelets used colour, gemstones and other flourishes to symbolise spiritual meaning. Some even had cryptic or magical inscriptions that were believed to protect the wearer.
The Renaissance focus on humanism prompted a renewed interest in bracelets and other types of jewellery. The Renaissance age had a passion for splendour. Designs became more elaborate and colourful, and advances in cutting techniques increased the sparkle and brilliance of gemstones.
The enormous importance of religion in everyday life could be seen in jewellery, as could earthly power and the design and materials used to make bracelets could be a display of political strength or wealth.
17th-century jewellery responded to the dramatic changes in fashion. While historically dark fabrics required elaborate gold jewellery, the new softer pastel shades became graceful backdrops for gemstones and pearls.
Expanding global trade made gemstones ever more available and the advances in cutting techniques made it easier to fashion bracelets with gemstones which were an ideal way to show off your wealth and status.
The 19th-century was a period of huge industrial and social change, but in jewellery design, the focus was often on the past. In the first decades, classical styles were popular, evoking the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. This interest in antiquities was stimulated by fresh archaeological discoveries.
Goldsmiths attempted to revive ancient techniques and made jewellery that imitated, or was in the style of, archaeological jewellery. The mass production techniques also made bracelets of all shapes and styles available to a wider customer base.
The Arts & Crafts jewellery movement was a return to handcrafted techniques and developed in the last years of the 19th century. It was based on a significant unease with the industrialised world.
Jewellers rejected the machine-led factory system - by that time the source of most affordable pieces - and instead focused on individual handcrafting. This process, they believed, would improve the soul of the workman as well as the end design. It was a return to the spirit behind jewellery.
Art Deco bracelets from the 1920s to the 1950s experienced cycles of boom, depression and war, and the designs became both innovative and glamourous. Sharp, geometric patterns celebrated the machine age, while exotic creations inspired by the Near and Far East gave a new artistic flair to designs that made the wearer feel and appear international and refined.
Contemporary bracelets from the 1960s to today pushed the boundaries and continually redefined methods and uses of bracelets. New technologies and non-precious materials, including plastics, paper and textiles and natural fibres overturned the notions of status traditionally implied in bracelets and other pieces of jewellery.
Avant-garde artist-jewellers have even started exploring the interaction of jewellery with the body and mind, pushing the boundaries of scale and wearability to the limits. This sparked the health and wellness fascination with gemstones and the metaphysical properties of organic materials and a return to the use of bracelets as personal talismans with complex personal, emotional and even energetic meaning and purpose.
From tribal and indigenous materials to man-made and natural materials, the variety of materials used to make bracelets are now innumerable.
While historically most bracelets are made from metals and leathers, they have also been made from organic materials including anything from insect secretions (such as silk), rattan, wood, feathers, tortoiseshell, horn, teeth, tusks, feathers, plant fibres, and stone. Man-made materials include glass, faience, enamel, ceramic, and plastic.
Ancient Egyptians used bone and pebbles, adorned with finely worked beads and pendants of jasper, turquoise, alabaster, lapis lazuli, cornelian, and feldspar. In Eastern cultures, bracelets were often made of horn, brass, beads, and copper, while more expensive and finer quality bracelets were designed of mother-of-pearl, gold, and silver.
Skilful jewellers in China were able to make bracelets cut from a single piece of jade. In India, the patwa (jewellery maker) often creates bracelets from braiding, knotting, twisting, or wrapping yarns made of cotton, silk, wool, or metallic fibres.
To put it simply, a charm bracelet is an item of jewellery for the wrist decorated with small charms or trinkets. We don’t know exactly when this tradition began but small twine bracelets decorated with shells found in the African Continent are over 75,000 years old.
In Europe, bracelets dating from 30,000 years ago, at the height of the last ice age, have been found with small charms carved out of ivory from mammoth tusk or bone. People may have won these charm bracelets for aesthetic or emotional reasons much like today. Or it may have been as a symbol of allegiance or faith.
Originally, charm bracelets would have been worn as magic charms to either bring luck or ward off evil spirits. The modern tradition of charm bracelets, with a chain-link bracelet made from white gold or silver, is Victorian in origin and was popularised by Queen Victoria.
During world war 1 and 2, some soldiers sent back charms and trinkets to their mothers, wives and daughters from countries where they were stationed as mementoes. Then in the 1950s, Hollywood actresses started wearing charm bracelets on screen and this propelled the charm bracelet into everyday consciousness. This type of bracelet’s popularity, we believe, is rooted in the concept of bringing a bit of magic or ‘charm’ into one’s life.
Bangle bracelets are also very popular today but they actually date back to ancient times.
They can be made of any material that can be carved, forged or moulded such as gold, silver, wood, copper, leather, or beads. Traditional bangles slip over the wrist however there is also the version with a clasp or hinge known as hinged bangles.
They can be chunky or narrow in style, and worn as single bangles or in multiples. The bangle is a relatively versatile item that has enjoyed continuous popularity throughout the years.
Modern wrap bracelets have tribal origins and evolved out of a need to protect one’s wrist in battle and were often made from long strands of leather wrapped several times around the wrist to create a protective area covering the wrist and the lower forearm.
They had simple designs composed of strands of beads or leather wrapped around the wrist multiple times to form one thick band or cuff. Sometimes the leather was even studded with stones or beads.
A cuff bracelet is usually a rigid wider bracelet that does not close completely together but rests on the wrist with a gap on the inner side of the wrist. Cuff bracelets are worn low down on the wrist rather than further up the arm and are another example of a bracelet design that evolved out of the need for protection during battle and then later became a piece of jewellery that denoted status and wealth.
Although hugely popularised by the hippie and rock cultures of the 1960s, leather bracelets for men have been around for almost as long as human civilization.
While no one is certain as to where leather bracelets originally came from, it is safe to say from archaeological discoveries that they have been around at least since the Neolithic period (10,000-4,500 BCE). Around this time, humans already knew how to use animal skins for clothing and footwear; but the technological innovation of tanning (curing animal hides to make them more pliable and more comfortable to handle) led to the development of more sophisticated designs for bracelets.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of leather bracelets, especially among men in their mid-20s to late 30s. While you would normally see these bracelets adorning the arms of surfer-types, bikers, adventurers, and even rock band members, a lot of male executives of a certain age have taken to wearing them with their office suits.
There is just something very masculine about the addition of an accessory that is essentially tough and rugged yet still elegant. Adding a leather bracelet to a suit-and-trousers combo actually enhances the outfit’s overall elegance and provides a unique and curious edge to any style.
Today, leather bracelets are worn by both men and women more for personal embellishment than anything more practical. The shape, size, and overall appearance of these bracelets reflect the wearer’s personality, taste, social standing, and even lifestyle choices.
Among the personal adornments found in Tutankhamen’s tomb were several gold-embossed or silver-embellished leather cuffs that denoted his status as Pharaoh – Egypt’s king and living god;
In Ancient Greece and, much later, throughout the Roman Empire, leather bracelets were issued to soldiers as part of their official uniform. The size, width, and thickness of these leather bands would depend on a soldier’s rank within the force;
While not an accessory but more of a votive adornment, observant Jews wear leather bands called shel-yad.
The historical Spartacus wore a plain leather band around his right wrist to denote his status as a rebel against the stifling slavery laws of the Roman Empire – possibly the first historical instance of the use of clothing to make a political or social statement – and his innate power as a man;
Leather cuffs – some simply studded with metal buttons or embellished more elaborately to denote a wearer’s social standing – were also part of warrior garb worn by barbarian or nomadic tribes such as the Vikings, Huns, Goths, and Mongols. These were, of course, more than just embellishments: they also served a practical purpose for protecting body parts not usually covered by armour such as one’s forearms and wrists;
Among different Native American tribes, leather bracelets had a shamanic overtone. Warriors, medicine men, and spirit women would wear leather wristlets to feel a stronger and more meaningful connection with their spirit guides or totem animals;
More recently, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, leather bracelets became an anti-establishment accessory of the hippie movement: a softer, less staid alternative to metal wristwatches and jewellery.
Most of today’s men’s, and also women’s, leather bracelets fall into three categories:
Wide Bands or Cuffs evoke big, burly, and muscular types including hardcore bikers and heavy metal musicians. While many leather cuffs tend to be plain black items with silvered metal buckling, these can be given a more elaborate – even intimidating – appearance. This look is achieved through the use of silver or stainless steel chains, studs, or even charms with a sinister motif such as skulls and horns. Some athletes, particularly those in sports where the hands are active such as tennis or even basketball, opt to wear them instead of elastic terrycloth-wrapped wristbands. These offer better support for movement and injury prevention.
Strap Bracelets are normally worn to complement wristwatches or – among the less time-conscious – replace watches altogether as one’s accessory of choice. These are considered a great way to add a strong masculine touch to an outfit without being too in-your-face and are appealing (and comfortable) enough to be worn with one’s office wardrobe. These may come in the form of a single narrowband or a combination of two bands looped together with a metal charm.
Rope-style Bracelets used to be considered standard among non-conformist types such as surfers and skaters. Today, however, their sartorial value has improved: many fashion-forward men and especially social media influencers have been sporting rope-type or woven leather bracelets. These accessories give their overall look a sense of casual elegance or a touch of playful fun.
It isn’t so much the form, but more of the colour of a leather bracelet that has a meaning. For those who take the “psychology of colour” seriously, the colour of a leather bracelet says a lot about the man wearing it.
Black: As with conventional fashion, sober black is all business and responsibility. It symbolizes power and strength, particularly if paired with a touch of gold or silver. However, if so embellished, it could also exude an air of mystery, even dominance and rage.
Brown: Like a good pair of lumberjack or hiking boots, a brown leather bracelet adds an aura of practicality to its wearer. Stolid and practical, but never boring, it also calls to mind the great outdoors and a spirit of adventure.
Dark Green: While not a strictly conventional colour, dark green in a leather bracelet is soothing and calming to look at. It is a colour with a distinct serenity that goes well with men who are in touch with their gentler, more tranquil side, and who live in close contact with nature.
Typically the keys to choosing the right bracelet are: Proportion, Fit, and Style. But we also like to add one more component – Meaning.
Firstly, a bracelet should be proportionate to your wrist size and fit comfortably. There are many one-size-fits-all bracelets out there but how the bracelet sits on your wrist is very important.
One-size-fits-all may make life easier but taking the time to ensure a tailored fit will always sit better on your wrist and feel effortless and unobtrusive – like a second skin. There should be a bit of extra space between the bracelet and your wrist when you have it on and it should not be so loose that it glides up and down your forearm or over your hand.
In terms of style, it depends on what message you want to send. Style is about personal expression and a bracelet is a fun and easy way to embody and communicate your style through the shape, cut, material and design of the bracelet.
Bracelets send a message and invite enquiry even more than most other jewellery. People will even ask if a bracelet represents something important to you or if a bracelet tells a story about who you are.
It is this last component that we think is the most important. The symbolism and meaning behind the materials and the design of a bracelet can tell a story as complex as your personality, as it did in ancient times. Stories communicate something beyond mere style and are an ideal way to connect with others.
Rooted in the power of storytelling, Atlas Accessories is founded on the belief that jewellery has the ability to establish connections through the narratives that define every one of us.
Each of our meticulously handcrafted pieces uses a symbolic combination of organic materials that embody each piece with personal expression and meaning.
Come check out the deeper meaning behind every material used by Atlas and add that little bit of personal magic to your bracelet.