ID bracelets have come far since their utilitarian roots in the Second World War. A discreet accessory, modern designers and Hollywood fans are giving it a new lease of life
Article by James Sherwood, courtesy of his website Jewellery for Gentlemen
Considering James Dean died crashing his Porsche Spider ‘Little Bastard’ in 1956 aged only 24, the man’s stature as a male style idol seems disproportionately large. The ‘too fast to live, too young to die’ actor certainly left a deep footprint in Hollywood having starred in only three films, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. The piece of jewellery most associated with Jimmy Dean is his slim Sterling silver ID bracelet engraved only with his christian name.
The ID bracelet was on its inception purely practical. World War II soldiers wore the wrist bands engraved with name, rank and serial number so their bodies could be identified if they died in action. They continued to be worn in the 1940s as a mark of respect but by the 1950s the bad boys of Hollywood including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Jimmy Dean had converted the ID bracelet into a cool piece of male jewellery often gifted to girlfriends to denote going steady. As they became more substantial and made in 18ct yellow gold, the ID bracelet became a status symbol. We think of 1970s Elvis wearing weighty gold ID bracelets with his name spelled out in diamonds and dripping with charms that reached an unprecedented level of vulgarity.
Though I am a fan of Jimmy Dean’s modest silver ID bracelet, it is Clark Gable’s 14ct yellow gold wrist band engraved with his name and medical number that has the most resonance. In 1942 Gable lost his third wife actress Carole Lombard in a plane crash prompting him to enlist in the US Army Air Force. He flew combat missions from a base in England for the duration of 1943 and was a decorated war hero promoted to Major. Hitler even offered a reward for the capture of his favourite Hollywood actor. The provenance and the seriousness of Gable wearing this piece of jewellery helped push its auction value beyond the £20,000 estimate.
The ID bracelet is enjoying something of a renaissance amongst young Hollywood actors such as Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine and Liam Hemsworth. The obvious appeal is being able to personalise the piece with whatever engraving one wishes to choose. As a gift from a lover, the locked chains of an ID bracelet denote willing possession and a message can be hidden on the reverse side of the plaque should one wish to keep the sentiment private. Though diamond-decked Elvis ID bracelets might be like catnip to the Hip Hop community, I would urge you to follow the Fassbender protocol and stick to solid gold. Any further embellishment is gilding the lily.
It was only a matter of time before the precious metal ID bracelet would be the logical step forward from friendship bracelets that every CEO worth his salt wears to prove he is more than just a suit in a skyscraper. Though Fassbender wears his watch on one wrist and the ID on the other, there is something rather gangster about a gold wristwatch and gold ID bracelet stacked on one wrist.
The sustained popularity of ID bracelets in America is reflected in the Ebay offer. The site has a 1960 14ct yellow gold Cartier ID bracelet for $4,000 though a vintage 9ct yellow gold curb-link bracelet can be had for under $3,000. Hatton Jewellers on London’s Hatton Garden create new 9ct yellow gold ID bracelets for just under £1,000. London’s rock royalty jeweller Stephen Webster is the master of chain link jewellery and he has reinvented the ID bracelet with his Thorn design rendered in black rhodium-plated silver (£870).