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How to Create Charm Bracelets and Necklaces that Reflect Your Family History
My parents were bitten by the genealogy bug long before I was born, so I was exposed to all this nerdery of pedigree charts, family group sheets, databases, and microfilm indices before I was old enough to read. Not all of my relatives are so lucky. The worst part is watching their eyes glaze over once you start discussing Great-Great-Aunt Gladys. Plus, being a young person who’s into family history gets me a lot of weird looks from my peers. So I decided to start a blog, called Kick-Ass Genealogy, to meet other nerds. I post lots of how-to articles on research, planning, and yes, even presentation. My main goal is to help other genealogists improve their skills and do something different with their work. Someone needs to make genealogy “real” to the young and the non-nerdy; it may as well start with you and me. P.S. If you’re too lazy to check the website once a week for updates, you can get my articles for free via RSS feed too.
Copyright © 2009 by Katrina McQuarrie Charm Bracelets: How to Create Jewelry that Reflects Your Family History by Katrina McQuarrie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License. You are free to redistribute this work, so long as you do not use it for commercial purposes, including bundling it as a “bonus” with other products for sale; do not alter it in any way or create derivative works from it; and retain the entire “Copyright” and “Image Credits” section intact. If you have further questions about what this license allows you to do, please click on the Creative Commons link above or e-mail me at email@example.com. Image Credits All images are used under Creative Commons License and attributed in order of appearance, as follows: • Cover image: “Vintage Jewelry Finds, Part III” by victoriafee. • Introduction: “Loaded Charm Bracelet” by prettysaro. • A Brief History: “Charmed, I’m Sure” by katelinn. • Step 2. Decisions, Decisions: “Blue Charm Bracelet” by kleinerkuchen. • Conclusion: “Peace Flowers” by estreya.
“You don't want a million answers as much as you want a few forever questions. The questions are diamonds you hold in the light. Study a lifetime and you see different colors from the same jewel.” -- Richard Bach There comes a point in your family history research where you have a fair amount of information about an individual or a larger branch of the family. Usually, this is the point where you start thinking about ways to write up a report or draw up a nice pedigree chart or family group sheet to represent all your hard work. Unfortunately, the time and effort that goes into these is rarely appreciated, except by other genealogists (and even then they only really pay attention if they are hardcore nerds, because they’re too busy making a chart for their own family). The aim of the game, then, is to find a creative way to present your family history so that others will be interested in it. Now, there are a ton of ideas out there. I am not going to tell you about heritage scrapbooking, because Google can do it 149,000 times better than I. However, there are some ideas that are not often considered. Creating heritage jewelry, instead of simply passing down existing pieces, is one such idea. Before you get concerned about the price, let me assure you it does not have to be a multi-thousand dollar investment – not unless you really like your relatives! There are a lot of different ways you can vary the implementation to fit your budget and other constraints. In fact, this is the very first step we discuss in the how-to portion of this guide. Charm bracelets and other hand-crafted or semi-hand-made jewelry are an attractive option for a few reasons. First, they serve a purpose other than just exposing your family history. They perform a decorative function as a regular old adornment, regardless of their “special” meaning. Second, they last a long time. Depending on what your jewelry is made out of, it may well become an heirloom itself. Lastly, because this is not an approach most people have taken with their family history presentation, you will still be pretty unique if you implement it. People are always curious to know what various charms represent and, because of the way you choose which events to include (we’ll also discuss that later), you will have a number of interesting replies to those questions. Are you ready to begin?
A Brief History
These gems have life in them: their colors speak, Say what words fail of. -- George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy (bk. I) Charm jewelry has been around since early civilization. The Egyptians wore it both to ward off evil and to identify themselves to the gods so they would collect the right person at death. The specific designs of jewelry varied based on the culture, but the general intent was the same: to protect the wearer or provide them with extraordinary, often magical, powers. This religious function of jewelry was present in most cultures, even including medieval knights who would wear protective symbols for battle. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Queen Victoria popularized the charm bracelet as we know it now: a memento instead of a magical item. Queen V had a bracelet with miniature portraits of her family on it. and the Victorians were all about trends, so this was very fashionable for a time. Then the custom got another boost at the end of World War II, when returning soldiers often brought home small gifts for their special someones. American jewelers were quick to pick up on the idea, and the trend was quite popular for a decade or two. More recently, charm bracelets have come to be viewed as a collectible item and you can now find vintage charms selling on EBay for astronomical amounts.
“Stones of small worth may lie unseen by day, But night itself does the rich gem betray.” -- Abraham Cowley, Davideis (bk. III, l. 37) Your first thought right about now, other than “where on earth do I get started with this sort of thing”, might actually be a worry: “what if I’m not crafty enough for this?” Well, let me assure you first off that I am hardly an arts and crafts gal myself. But part of the beauty of charm bracelets is that they don’t have to match perfectly. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. Symmetrical designs and custom-smelted charms are not necessary for this sort of thing. If you’re worried about your artistic skill, relax for a moment and remember that this guide is, in fact, providing you with detailed step-by-steps.
Step 1. Planning the Project
The very first decision you must make is what type of media you are going to use for your jewelry. This will be based on a number of considerations: your level of comfort with various handcrafts, the cost and time involved, the longevity of the finished piece, how “custom” you want to get with it, your sense of aesthetics, and the amount of information you have on a given ancestor or branch of the family.
Based on your answers to those questions, there are a number of suitable formats you could choose from. For example, if you are looking to create something “just so” that will last forever and become an heirloom in its own right, you might want to go with a standard charm bracelet. If you have lots of photographs of your ancestor, you may want to consider an Italian-style charm bracelet. (They have links where you can insert miniaturized photographs, much like Queen Victoria did.) If you are short on money but have ready access to a specialty bead store, you could create a necklace or bracelet (possibly with matching earrings?) based on what you have available or can special order there. If you’re accomplished with wire jewelry, do that. If cost and time are a concern, consider choosing a few representative pendants and simply knotting them on a pretty ribbon. If you are the type who knows how to make clay or papier-mâché beads, you are completely set to go with custom charms. The possibilities here are pretty much endless. Once you have decided the type of material you will use for your base necklace/bracelet and your charms, you’re ready to move on the next step.
Step 2. Decisions, Decisions
Regardless of your chosen format, you still need to choose the subject whose life you will showcase. I recommend an ancestor you feel a particular kinship to, or one who is important in your family history in some way – perhaps they were the generation who immigrated, or the first in the family to shift away from the traditional occupation of dirt farming. Maybe they are someone you personally knew while they were alive, but now they are gone and the younger generation never got to know them. Whoever you go with, think about the volume of information you have about them and roughly how you might try to put into a charm format. If you have tons of info, you’ll have to think long and hard about what is worthy of inclusion. If you don’t have enough, you may want to consider changing your subject to someone else, or expanding it so it encompasses a whole branch of the family. Once you have decided on a subject, I highly recommend you create a narrative of the person’s life. Include even things that are not on the charm bracelet. One day, you too will join your ancestors. When that day comes, your relatives will be blessed to have not only the jewelry you created to commemorate your family, but the full details behind that person’s life as well. Including a report with the bracelet ensures that the meaning of the decorations dangling off it will not get lost or forgotten. Please don’t neglect this important step. It doesn’t have to be perfect, especially if you hate writing, but it should exist, if only in point form, and travel with the jewelry’s container.
The write-up will also help you with the last, important part of this step: determining which events go on the jewelry! Charm bracelets lend themselves easily to a chronological format, but it’s important to consider larger characteristics that might have spanned years or even their whole lifetime. To give you some ideas, try considering: • Their birth year, horoscope sign, or birth stone. • Rites of passage, especially religious ones like christening, bar mitzvah, or first communion. • Birth, marriage, and death of the subject and their close relatives or friends. • Their education. • Professional development and awards, anything related to their occupation(s). • Service to their community or country – either military involvement or volunteer work for causes they believed in. • Travel souvenirs, especially if they immigrated or moved around. • Any special interests or hobbies the ancestor had. • Anything relating to an anecdote or story about them. • Any important events in larger history which may have had an impact on them.
Step 3. Putting It All Together
Congratulations, you’ve made it through the planning stage! Now it’s time to actually hunt down the material to craft your jewelry. You can buy supplies at varying price points depending on what format you’ve decided on. Good places to look include jewelry stores, craft stores, and beading stores. You can increasingly find these businesses online, and if none of them suit your fancy there is always EBay and Etsy. Now, finding the base material for your bracelet – the wire, the chain, the fishing line, or the ribbon – is usually quite simple. But finding a charm to match each event is more challenging. I will tell you upfront, charm-matching is not an exact science. Sometimes you will find a charm that’s a perfect physical representation of the event: a tractor, wedding rings, a house. Sometimes you will have to hunt for an icon that will work. The best approach is to have an idea of what you’re looking for, but keep your eyes open and browse the store or website. Don’t rule anything out prematurely. You may also want to keep in mind what kind of style you’re going for with the piece: fine or chunky, elegant or earthy. I have included the pictures in this guide precisely to help you with this aspect of design. Remember that mass-manufactured charms and beads tend to be simpler designs of less sturdy quality, whereas older charms and beads have more colour, more details, and are more substantial in their heft (and price tag).
Step 4. Packaging
Once you have the bracelet material and the charms, assembling it is a fairly simple task, so I won’t detail it here. The next thing to consider is packaging. If the jewelry is going to be a gift, I recommend finding one of those “fuzzy” boxes that commercial jewelry comes in – reuse some old ones if you have any laying around. If you don’t, try to find an appropriately-sized basic box and then line it with cotton
batting. These should be available at a card or gift store near you or, if all else fails, the dollar store. Actually, if all else truly fails, there are plenty of sites on the internet that will show you how to make your own boxes via origami. You can decorate the outside however the fancy strikes you. If the box is large enough, include a miniature card that describes the jewelry in a couple sentences, or a folded up copy of the narrative that accompanies it. If you have a talent for handwriting or calligraphy, go ahead and go nuts here. However if, like me, your handwriting is indecipherable after about two sentences, perhaps a computer printout is best. Feel free to play around with fancy fonts though, so long as you check to make sure they’re readable for the whole length of your narrative. Now all that remains is to wrap or tie the box in whatever manner suits you, and give it to the recipient on a special occasion.
Thank you for reading this guide on how to create a charm bracelet to express your family’s history in a creative way. I hope you found it helpful and drew some inspiration from it. If you would like to let me know what you thought of it, I would absolutely love it if you dropped me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org . Let me know how you modified it, how well it worked, any or difficulties you had. Please don’t hesitate to email me either if you have any suggestions for future howto guides. I thrive on your feedback. Also, please don’t forget that you can also visit my blog, Kick-Ass Genealogy, and subscribe to my RSS feed any time you like.
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