Nancy Cunard, 1928, photograph by Man Ray, Courtesy Man Ray Trust Adagp, Paris
Is there a more beautifully feminine image than the 1928 Man Ray photograph portraying a mysterious Nancy Cunard with piercing kohl-lined eyes and translucent skin... the ‘woman with bracelets’ poses with hands clasped and dryadic arms, a consummate seduc- tress in her mysterious finery... however, aesthetic fascination apart, the bracelet here is no longer a pleasing decoration; it is embedded in the flesh of a woman who despite her shackles has delivered herself from punishing debauchery and now militantly wears this armour like a profession of faith. These are the fetishistic lucky charms of a collector with a passion for primitive art, symbolic of her commitment to fighting the racial hatred ravaging the self-righteous society in which she lives. This era will be marked indelibly by the unwavering convictions of the ‘Nancy Cunard’ style.
The history of the bracelet, thus captured around women’s wrists, reads diagonally; sometimes explicitly, in the form of brilliant acrostic initials, sometimes more covertly disguised by abstract gold fastenings and precious stones. Whether the bracelet represents a complicit prayer sent up to the gods, a tender in kind or a magic amulet possessing analgesic powers, it can also be a distinctive sign of belonging to a social class, or be used as an elixir of seduction; bracelets enhance the beauty of women and ennoble the actions of men.
Adorning one’s arms with circlets of precious metals goes back to earliest Antiquity. Worn on the vulnerable points of the body, in Egypt they are a guarantee of protection or safe passage to the great beyond; Cleopatra sacrificed herself to two poisonous asps encircled around her wrists, like tightly entwined serpent bracelets. The Romans awarded these bracelets as a mark of distinction or to commemorate a brilliant deed, to be worn as glorious chest insignia during triumphal ceremonies. The Middle Ages proscribed such heathen practices: talismanic bracelets or tribal relics are to evince hopes rather than illustrate deeds.
Once Christianity was established, bracelet styles would simultane- ously be required to pay tribute to the sartorial obligations of
the moment, strong religious influence and the architectural style of the epoch. Between the 6th and 15th centuries, heavy concealing garments buried the bracelet under sumptuously embroidered sleeves, before subsequently returning to a lighter style that once more revealed the skin and provided a place to showcase jewellery.
During the Renaissance, a passionate interest in the human body was expressed through jewellery as much as through architecture and painting, with bucolic sources of inspiration once more transforming the bracelet into an enchanted garden strewn with floral motifs. So much so that the jewel, liberated from its symbolic weight, again became an instrument of royal power. Being priceless in value, these jewels were consequently employed to enhance the prestige of the Sun King, while also serving as security for political transactions.
Now more of a frippery thanks to the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie, the bracelet became an expression of ostentatious epicureanism, circulating around the salons and banquets of Louis XV. These short-lived ‘fantasy’ or ‘costume’ bracelets, offered on the slightest pretext to mark a friendship, an event or an anecdote, at the mercy of passing fashions and industrial production processes, commingled rhinestone costume jewellery with the pretensions of a bourgeoisie in hot pursuit of its own glorification.
Later hounded and ruined by the Revolution, the nobility fled, secretly carrying with them any remaining family jewels, since all outward display of riches except jewellery with patriotic mottoes had been prohibited. Bracelets inspired by Antiquity or Egypt were
only seen again adorning wrists during the Directoire and Consulship period, albeit this time more discreetly. Aesthetic concerns
and various ideas about its value and prestige meant that the bracelet was used under the First Empire as part of the economic policy of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Royalist restoration, once the Emperor had been exiled, no longer had sumptuous and luxurious means at its disposal and instead established itself as a moralising regime. The 19th century sank into prudish austerity, while Romanticism blossomed. A new form of craftsmanship was born, that of sentimental jewellery. The curioprone Victorian woman, often a prisoner in her own home, wove bracelets out of real hair to preserve the capillary memory of a deceased loved one or lover.
With wars and economic crises each bringing their own suffering and privations, it has become ever more inappropriate to flaunt wealth by displaying a fortune on one’s wrist. If some still cannot resist the temptation to adorn themselves with a bling watch or to sport a charity bracelet, it is still wiser to make a good friend in this respect than risk attracting the castigation of public opinion...
Marlène Van de Casteele