Before I left for vacation last week, I visited my grandmother to tell her about my upcoming trip. She is 96 and hasn’t been back to the Caribbean for almost 20 years now, but her memories of time spent in the West Indies are among her most cherished, and she happily recounted many of them for me. She pointed to two slim, plain gold bangles on her wrist and said proudly that she has had them since she was thirteen, when her parents brought them back from a cruise down to the leeward islands.
Above: My grandmother Hope (or her twin sister, Kate, we never can quite tell), in Vermont, 1932, displaying a gold bracelet about her wrist.
It became tradition for Mumma and her sisters to buy bracelets each time they returned to the islands, and ever since I was a child, I can recall a gentle clinking sound following her as she moved about the house. She’s passed this style on to the younger generations of Goddard women too: my mom, aunts and older cousins all tend to jingle merrily while they gesture or hug.
Since this would be my second trip to the West Indies and only a week before my 25th birthday, I thought I would at least investigate the possibility of buying one for myself in Antigua, which led me to many frustrating pre-trip google searches in which I came up with almost no information, either commercial or historical, on the subject. This had the effect of peaking my curiosity ENORMOUSLY. Where did these magical, beautiful creations come from, and who were their makers?
My experience studying the effects of tourism on local economies during my semester with S.E.A. (not to mention LIVING in a tourist economy in Newport) has left me with a jaded view of shopping in vacation hot spots. All too often, it seems that the pressures of a global economy and mechanized production of goods puts artists and craftspeople the world over up against prices that are hard to beat. Moreover, tourists who don’t know any better (and tourists who do), buy these cheap items without considering that they may have been made 5,000 miles away, and thereby perpetuate this cycle of artisan displacement. My fear was that the Caribbean of my Grandmother’s recollections, and the artists that she seemed to find on so many occasions with ease, may not have been able to stand up to these challenges, but I was resolved to find out.
Imagine my delight when I noticed, upon arriving, that the Antiguan customs official who took my passport was wearing bangles just like Mumma’s, and then picture me nearly jumping for joy and motioning enthusiastically to Tom each time a woman passed us in the supermarket with a little tinkering sound. I finally described them to a woman in a clothing shop, and she nodded and said, “ohhh, you’re looking for those old-timey bracelets. I know what your talking about, I’m a jewelry expert!” (her coworker started giggling).
She referred me to a store on the cruise ship piers of St. Johns, and somewhere between the cases of duty-free, fancy European label diamonds within, there they were! My bangles! I excitedly started questioning the young sales woman about where they came from; were they from the island, and could she tell me who made them? She didn’t really have any information to give, other than that locally, they are referred to as ‘Caribbean Bracelets.’ Slightly disappointed, I decided to continue my search in the hopes that it would still be possible to buy directly from an artist.
Mumma grew extremely close with an Antiguan family during winters spent with my grandfather there, and she eventually became godmother to two of the children, who I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting for the first time last week. In addition to sharing all sorts of stories about ‘hope mummy’ and their many escapades together, Feona knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned the bracelets; it turned out that Feona’s uncle made them for my grandmother, and his son, BJ, continues the family tradition today.
I walked in the door of Bailey’s Jewelry in Antigua’s capital city of St. John’s and was greeted by the zip! of jewelry saws and the whoosh! of welding torches emanating from the back room; I knew I was in the right place. The bangles on display were all in silver, and I was informed that certain designs were made by BJ, others came from Trinidad, and all could be custom made in gold. Then in walked the jeweler himself, and a history lesson far better than I could have hoped for began.
Above Top: A bangle made by BJ Bailey featuring a highly ornate, cone-shaped head and hand chiseled designs around the body. Above Bottom: A bracelet made in Trinidad of its own distinct style.
BJ’s father learned fine metal smithing techniques from an English minister who came to preside over St. Paul’s Church in Falmouth, Antigua in the 1920’s. This minister taught a small group of locals what he knew, and from there, they each developed unique bracelet, wedding band and hoop earring designs that were in demand by locals and tourists alike. BJ learned the trade from his father, and continues to use many of the tools and furnishings that were passed down to him. He told us with great pride that his bracelets are completely hand made, and that in fact, no machine or mold could ever replicate the artistry and delicacy of his designs, and then he took us back into the workshop and started melting stuff!
Above: Every bangle, whether gold or silver, begins it’s life this way. BJ buys his raw material in small nuggets. Below: The metal is melted down in a crucible using an acetylene torch.
Above: The molten metal is poured into one of these ingot molds to roughly form a bar or ball shape as needed. Below: To form the body of the bracelet, the oblong ingot is repeatedly run through a series of hand-cranked mills which pull and press it into shape, first as a long square rod, and then as a perfectly round wire. The green mill is a more modern version of the one used in BJ’s father’s day, pictured second below.
Above: BJ rounds out the shaft by cranking it through an iron die. Below: In order to prevent wear on the holes of the die, sharp edges are often softened on this anvil first, which is over 100 years old.
Above: Once the heads are welded on and the piece polished, the bangle is ready for its ornamentation. Below: Each design is hand hammered using chisels with varying patterns on the tips, and finally it is bent around a mandrel. Every bangle’s pattern is crafted with a careful eye and is an expression of the artist’s whimsy.
Below: There was a strong sense of continuity in the shop, from the well-worn tools (they never make them like they used to) to the desks which had been there since before BJ was born, such as this one. Below Second: These works in progress reflect a more modern trend that I noticed on a lot of young Antiguans, especially men, which is both gold and silver and features a complex, chiseled diamond pattern around the initials. I even met a 9 month old baby (Feona’s grandson) with the teeniest name bracelet imaginable!
The day after my visit, BJ presented me with my very own, hot-off-the-press gold bangle, a big hug, and instructions on the proper way to take it on and off. I skipped out of the store relishing the sound it made upon meeting my other bracelets (acquired on travels past) and couldn’t stop looking at my wrist. Lately though, I’ve been wearing it on its own, a lone and delicate show-stopper. I suppose, like Mumma, the accumulation of bangles is a journey meant to take me a lifetime of visits to the West Indies, too.
To purchase custom made bangles, visit or contact BJ and his team at:
Bailey’s Jewelry, North Street, St. John’s, Antigua WI
Tel: +1 268 462 2070