Charm bracelets that tinkle with masses of jewelled symbols are often seen on the wrists of women at the races. For some wearers, they attract good luck, and for others, they are purely decorative. Those two approaches are also seen in people who decorate their animals’ harness gear with horse brasses.
You won’t see classic-style brasses on racehorses often. The small brass plaques, which became popular in mid-19th century England, were most often used to decorate parade and shire horses. Antique originals are sought after by collectors, and sometimes are sold for hefty prices.
Echoes Of the Past
Horse brasses and charm bracelets seen today are modern manifestations of an ancient impulse. Prehistoric humans fashioned decorative charms from clay, shell, and animal bone, and they later expanded their repertoire to include rock, precious stones, and wood.
Two of the earliest examples found include shells worn in Africa approximately 75,000 years ago, and 30,000-year-old mammoth tusk charms found in Germany. Charms, whether amulets for protection or talismans for luck, are found in every culture on the planet.
Some are worn by people who play online bingo games in Canada in the hope they will be first to call a win. After all, who wouldn’t want to believe that a tiny charm has the power to change your fortune for the better?
While charms for horses are not as old as charms for humans, they were used in ancient Rome. The Romans used bronze disks, crescents and other shapes on harnesses. A type of horse brass, usually made of bronze, was used in mediaeval England, where they not only indicated the owner’s social status, they also were believed to ward off bad luck.
Victorians Go Wild
As tempting as it is to think that the exquisite horse brasses of the 19th century were a continuation of that tradition, the UK’s National Horse Brass Society said that is not so. Instead, the brasses of the 1800s were almost always purely decorative.
The same can be said for the charm bracelets that were popularised by none other than Queen Victoria herself. She wore them and gave them away as gifts.
Victoria went into mourning after the death of her beloved Albert in 1861, and in doing so, went full goth. Victoria dressed in black and wore mourning jewellery such as jet beads and remembrance charm bracelets. The queen managed to make grief, death, and charm bracelets fashionable, all in one fell swoop.
A decade before Albert’s death, London hosted the Great Exhibition, which brought together exhibitions of culture and industry from around the world. The result was a renewed appreciation of the decorative arts among Victorians.
Horse brasses were just one of the ways in which that appreciation was expressed. Sometime in the 1880s, Victorian women started the serious collection of brasses, and often put them to new uses at home.
Decorative Charms Today
Like charm bracelets, horse brasses are still made, collected, and worn today. Whether you believe they exert supernatural influences, or they are simply beautiful things, you have to admit there is something special about them.