by Staff Writer
Exactly when someone first discovered that tying a vine around the wrist made a pretty decoration isn't known, but people have worn bracelets for centuries. The best artisans of many cultures applied their skills to the bracelet designs still worn today. This history lesson starts with a basic definition: The English word "bracelet" is derived from the Latin word "brachium," which simply means "arm."
Early bracelets: The wearing of jewelry for adornment and ritual may have started as far back as 7,000 years ago, and archeologists have found evidence that people wore bracelets in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Early bracelets were made of grasses, slender tree limbs and shells, then copper and bronze. After the Bronze Age (2000 to 1400 B.C.), artisans made bracelets of gold and silver. They became more decorative, adorned with shells and stones, as jewelry became a symbol of wealth and status.
Ancient Egypt: By the time of the First Dynasty (2680 B.C.), Egyptians were wearing bracelets made of gold and silver and decorated with semiprecious stones. Skilled goldsmiths of the New Kingdom (1558 to 1085 B.C.) crafted inlaid designs made of African gemstones. Although bracelets were sometimes buried in tombs as part of the deceased's possessions, it appears that they were worn as decorative accessories rather than as amulets or ritual jewelry.
Mediterranean influences: The ancient Greeks wore cuffs on the upper and lower arm as decoration. Greek soldiers used wide leather and metal cuffs as part of their dress uniform and for protection, a practice later adopted by Roman soldiers. Well-dressed Romans also liked coiled gold bangles that resembled snakes. Mediterranean jewelry styles spread across Europe, but bracelets fell out of favor, especially among men, as Europe transitioned to the Middle Ages (A.D. 476 to 1450).
Asian artistry: Intricate cuffs and bangles carved from jade existed in China as early as 2000 B.C. The ancient Chinese also valued gold bracelets and etched elaborate patterns of nature, animals and mythical creatures into the gold. Gold bangles were the common bracelet style found in India, too, although strands of colorful metal and glass beads have become popular in modern times.
European revival: European women revived bracelets as common fashion accessories in the 17th century. They wore ribbons and thin bangles -- often wearing several at a time. Bracelet chains became stylish accessories, especially in the 19th century; the designs linked cameos and medallions decorated with ivory and coral. Charm bracelets with dangling lockets and engraved charms became popular during the Victorian Era.
20th century: During the 20th century, consumers could find bracelets of almost any design imaginable. Bracelets also became more affordable as mass production increased the availability of fashion jewelry. By the 1920s, the ornate designs of the late 19th century gave way to the clean lines of the Art Deco period. Designers added Bakelite and plastics to jewelry in the 1930s and made plastic bangles a wardrobe staple for teen girls. Women and girls adored charm bracelets made of gold-plated brass or sterling silver in the 1950s, but by the 1970s, and until the turn of the century, women wanted variety in their fashion. They wore wide cuffs, slender bangles, beaded strands and thin chains. Men started wearing bracelets again, usually choosing gold or sterling silver link chains.
21st century: Several lasting innovations in bracelet design occurred in the last decade. Silver became the most common material for link bracelets, cuffs and bangles. This trend started in the 20th century when manufacturers mass-produced silver jewelry, which was less expensive than gold but still had the sparkle of a precious metal that buyers loved. The preference for silver over yellow extended to industrial metals, such as silvery grey steel, titanium and tungsten. Industrial metals are now the dominant material in men's bracelets. As the green-living movement grows, more people are demanding natural materials in their wardrobe; to learn more, read our guide on the best bracelets inspired by nature. Finally, today's young people often wear simple bracelets to support social causes and showcase group identity; their banner can be a colorful rubber band, dangling charm or even a piece of string.