Friday, 19 February 2016

The mystery of the silver bracelet

click to enlarge
Curiosities can be irresistible, so when I stopped by a friend's shop and saw this silver coin bracelet I had to buy it. You might well wonder why someone who has been around collector's coins for more than half a century would be interested in such a thing: I was not shopping for a gift; I do not wear jewellery of any kind, let alone women's jewellery; and I have worked at an antique jewellers in London's west end, so this humble little bracelet was unlikely to impress. It was not expensive: I only paid for the value of the silver, but getting a bargain played no part in my decision to buy it. There was no great rarity among the coins, and besides, they were all damaged by the jewellery mounts and so would have little interest to a coin collector.

All but one of the coins were British and from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The exception was a Napoleon Bonaparte half franc of 1812. It would have been one of the two most valuable coins on the bracelet had it not formed part of the clasp, The other was a William and Mary shilling of 1693. The other coins were very common: A Charles II threepence of 1679; an Anne shilling of 1709; a George II sixpence of 1757; A George III shilling of 1787 (of the commonest variety at that); and a Victoria young head sixpence of 1887. The coins were not arranged by their dates: the central coin was the exceptionally common George III shilling and the others were balanced out by their sizes and by which way the monarch's heads faced, save for Napoleon, who faced Queen Victoria when the bracelet was closed.

I did wonder why James II, Georges I and IV,and William IV were absent. Were there, originally, when the bracelet belonged to a much larger woman? Were they present on a matching set of earrings and a pendant? The bracelet was neither British nor French. It had two, mostly illegible marks on the clasp beneath Napoleon, but what must have been the maker's mark was not listed among French silversmiths. The other mark was barely visible and mostly damaged by file marks. It was fairly well-made: the jump-rings were apparently deliberately oval and were silver-soldered shut; the box-catch was typical and well made and the safety chain was hand-made and had silver-soldered links. Had it been British, it would have had  marks on the other part of the box-catch.

None of this aroused my curiosity, though. What I found most curious, and why I bought it, was that the wear on the British coins followed the pattern one would find in a hoard of coins. Taking into consideration the relief of each coin, the wear was gradually more extreme going toward the oldest coin. The Victorian sixpence had only about ten years wear, so the bracelet was made sometime around the end of the nineteenth century or later. But the wear was not consistent with coins in circulation at the same time: There was a Royal Mint report in Victorian times about badly worn silver coins of thirty to forty years old being in circulation, and the recoinage of 1816 was due to the lack of silver coins in circulation, the shortfall being made up by the silver tradesman's tokens which many people collect today. You might think, then, that the coins had been part of someone's collection. The problem with that theory is that while most of them were common coins, the conditions were not consistent with the collection of some young boy who would be easily able to purchase a close to mint example of the George III shilling, but could afford, at best, a really badly worn William and Mary shilling or Napoleon half franc. The condition of the pre-bracelet coins can be estimated, not from the obverses which all have extra wear from usage and the coins rubbing against things (paper will wear metal more that you would think. In days gone by, female file clerks were always having to get their rings re-tipped).

In modern collections of people with no really strong interest, you do see, like most of these coins, only the commonest examples, but whatever is somewhat expensive to buy in the collector's theme is usually either absent or is represented by an example in really dreadful condition. All of the coins have about twenty to fifty years normal wear on them yet their dates span just over two hundred years. Perhaps they were mostly rejects from some collection (although the William and Mary shilling and the Napoleon half franc would be more likely sold, to buy more coins), or coins from an early twentieth century dealer's junk box, but the last idea does not really explain the William and Mary shilling: while the obverse appears very worn, the portraits, being jugate, are in very low relief. The less worn reverse has every detail. What little of the reverse of the Napoleon coin can be seen has having virtually no wear and would be at least nearly extremely fine. The wear on all of the coins is mostly post-bracelet. Perhaps the coins were all bought at different times and some of those times were leaner than others. There are explanations that mostly, but not completely, make sense and we could come up with  a number of very fanciful explanations such as some place where money circulated very slowly, indeed, or a family that had a habit of putting away a coin to celebrate a particular event and then these were passed down to the following generations. No explanation can be proven or even given too much credit past some strange sorts of happenstance and constellations of good fortune and little knowledge. The bracelet does, however give something to ponder or fantasize about. That is why I bought it.That, and because its ultimate fate would have been the melting pot. Perhaps my granddaughter might like it when she is older.

Have a mysterious weekend.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. Hello John:

    Stuff like this turns up on British beaches after a serious blow when the hard-pack is exposed. While yours is of no real value, the human story behind it is immense. Fascinating piece.


    John Howland

    1. Hi John,

      And while we cannot know the details of its history it might have people wondering for many more years. It could be used for the subject for short story exercises or competitions; it could inspire a new interest in coins or history. Worthwhile saving from the melting pot, I think.



  2. Hi John:
    The irony is that I've spent countless hours searching for coins like this and at a stroke you find a handful in a shop in Canada. There ain't no justice!



    1. But then again, as no one lived here (Calgary)earlier than 1873 there's not much to be found in the ground here regardless of any good luck. A few years ago, the same shop bought dozens of 17th century Austrian silver coins that had been found stuffed in coat pockets when an elderly relative of the Austrian seller died. Most of them were in excellent condition, and they were not an old coin collection but coins taken from circulation in the 17th century with many duplicates among them. Unlike the bracelet, none of them were selling for only the cost of the silver, though. When I worked in the antique shop in St. Martin's Court, London, I bought an Elizabeth I half pound for the cost of the gold as it had a hole in it. Shops that sell very high-end material charge very little for the "junk" items that are bought along with them, but most people look for bargains in junk shops where such things are usually over-valued. That's my "tip for the day".