Spend five minutes sparkle-scrolling on Instagram and you’re bound to encounter more than a few vendeuses specializing in vintage charm jewelry, many of them 20- and 30-somethings. But just as Julia Child paved the way for Martha Stewart, and Stewart paved the way for legions of “lifestyle experts,” there is an OG purveyor of vintage charm jewelry that has been specializing in this category for 20 years.
In 2002, the mother-and-daughter team of Leslie Slutsky and Lisa Feldkamp launched their business, originally called C.H.A.R.M.—an acronym for Charms Have a Real Meaning—sourcing and selling vintage charms on a dinky Y2K-era website.
By 2004, they’d established a build-your-own charm bar at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.
And in 2005 the “charmtrepreneurs” appeared in a book published by Harry Abrams titled The Charm of Charms. (Fun fact: I was a kind of unofficial research/editorial assistant on that book, working in coauthor Ki Hackney’s home on the Upper East Side every day after my full-time job as a young editor at Bridal Guide magazine—six months of double-shifting, but I learned so much and still recognize some of my turns of phrase that made the final cut!)
Bergdorf hosted the book launch party. By then, the company, now known as Charmco, was regularly helping the posh department store’s clients curate beguiling charm assortments to affix to bracelets—extravagant jumbles of mid-century glamazons and droll little trinkets in the shapes of elephants, padlock hearts, and cuckoo clocks.
Soon a global fan base began to emerge and online sales took off. “Clients downloaded a questionnaire about themselves to fax back to us, so we were able to reach people all over the world looking to build something that honored their or their loved ones’ life journeys,” says Feldkamp.
The early-2000s timing plays a role in their success story, according to Feldkamp. There was definitely something in the ether that revived the culture’s fascination with charms and charm bracelets: “It was in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001—in New York City—and people were really taking account of what was important to them and focusing on the most meaningful connections,” she says. “Since charms carry so much personal significance and celebrate life in such a specific way, it was the perfect time to make bespoke charm bracelets for people.”
In honor of its 20th anniversary, I explore the “charmed life” of this unique brand in a conversation with Feldkamp below.
Charms, whether vintage or new, are hotter than ever right now. Do you see any parallels between where the culture was in 2002 and where it is in 2022?
Yes, absolutely. Things have changed over the past 20 years and yet we are in another time of great turmoil and reflection. Jewelry has always reflected its time in history, and the popularity of charms fits into the current drive to be expressive and personal. We feel very lucky to have survived and thrived throughout the pandemic. The spring of 2020, we made more graduation gifts than ever before. During the holiday season we could barely keep up with gift orders. People want to invest in something meaningful and built to last. Ask someone about each and every charm they wear and the joy of these little talismans becomes clear. Nothing tells your story like a charm bracelet.
There are so many newbie vintage charm sellers in your lane right now—what do you think makes you stand out as a brand in a sector that currently seems somewhat saturated?
Instagram is a charm wonderland with so many vendors selling select groupings of vintage and antique charms. However, our company is built to last: Not only do we have a huge vintage vault, which has been lovingly collected over these past 20 years, but we design new gold charms with the same eye to detail and movement of our vintage collection and add new styles every month. We wanted to create a brand that clients could rely on to buy a gift for their loved one every holiday, birthday, or just because—and always be able to find that next perfect charm to add to their collection.
Is there a charm type that has been a constant best seller for you all these years?
If we can engrave it, it’s a best seller. People love the bespoke nature of the engravables in our collection. Whether it’s a heart, a classic boy or girl profile, or a dog bone, people want to celebrate that loved one and mark their name in gold. Our COVID mask charm has definitely proved to be a winner over the past two years—people have engraved some hilarious and non-print-worthy things on the back!
Have you had to adjust your curation strategy/sourcing channels at all in recent years? Is it easier or harder to find goods right now?
Honestly, many dealers and people looking to divest of their personal pieces find us through our website or Instagram to sell their charms. We have an office on 47th Street right in the jewelry district, and many dealers refer to us as “the charm ladies” when we walk by. We do have to be disciplined about buying vintage, as prices have skyrocketed both with the price of gold and the popularity of charms.
Over the years, how have you had to adjust your marketing strategy to accommodate the needs of your customers?
Instagram and Facebook have done much of the heavy lifting for us. Our customers have gotten younger and now span a great age range. We make gifts for bat mitzvahs and gifts for 80th birthdays. I think the trend to layer charm necklaces has made buying charms more relatable for younger clients, who maybe wouldn’t go in for a full bracelet but love the ease and casualness of a waterfall of charm necklaces. We currently sell charm bracelets and charm necklaces in equal measure.
Roses and thorns! I’d love to know some of the triumphs and some of the missteps you have encountered along your path to success.
Rose: We’re a mother/daughter business and we still get along (most of the time!). Thorn: We should have moved from a home office to a proper work space sooner than we did. I take enough work home mentally, it’s really nice to have the divide and keep most of the work where it belongs.
Do you think consumer enthusiasm for the charm category will plateau?
I don’t see any reason for the enthusiasm to die down. No matter what’s on trend or what influencers are wearing, charms are personal storybooks. They are more than fine jewelry— although they bear a value in gold—they have emotional value, and it’s hard to beat that.
Are there any customer stories that have stayed with you through the years?
There have been so many great stories! We really get to know our clients and enjoy helping them curate the perfect necklace or bracelet. It’s moving to work with someone who has inherited a meaningful charm bracelet and help them rework it so it can be cherished all over again. A few years ago, we did a project for a mother who was celebrating her daughter’s news that she was in remission for breast cancer. That bracelet carried a lot of joy.
Looking ahead, what are your goals for the future of your business?
Honestly, more of the same! I think we will eventually include 18k gold charms in our collection and maybe even platinum one day. We are always editing and always adding styles. We want to bring the best-quality charms at a reasonable price, and I think we are succeeding.
Top: Lisa Feldkamp (left) and Leslie Slutsky in 2004 as seen in The Charm of Charms (photo courtesy of Jade Albert); this vintage gold bracelet and charms have all sold, but see similar items here and here.
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