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The latest Instagram jewelry craze: bracelets you can’t take off

Stores like Catbird are selling clients a more permanent version of friendship bracelets and commemorative jewelry.

The process of welding a bracelet around a customer’s wrist, shown at the Brooklyn jewelry store Catbird.

Julia West recently had a thin gold chain permanently welded around her wrist. West, who works in social media at the Gap, explains, “I have a best friend of almost 20 years now and we grew up together. She and I always tried to do friendship bracelets, and every single time, she would lose the other half of the heart or the locket, so we stopped doing it.”

But when Catbird, a popular Brooklyn-based jewelry store specializing in “casual luxury” that’s beloved on social media, started offering permanent bracelets, the now-adult friends found a solution. West says, “I messaged her on Instagram and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, Katie, now you can never lose it.’” The two went to get their bracelets together.

West says “it’s really special to have something that is so permanent. I mean, I know that it is able to come off if I need it to, but it’s a nice reminder that she’s there, and she has the same one.” And, West notes, “she obviously hasn’t lost it, which has been amazing.”

For jewelers who offer permanent bracelets, welding or soldering a bracelet around a customer’s wrist takes jewelers no more than 15 minutes. Sriya Karumanchi, Catbird’s marketing manager, explains that if you come in to “get zapped,” as Catbird calls the process, you sit down with a jeweler who will laser-weld the chain around your wrist. The welding is painless and happens in a quick flash of light.

Once the bracelet is welded on, it’s permanently attached to the wearer’s wrist. The solid gold used for these bracelets is durable and can last a lifetime. The bracelets be easily removed with scissors if need be. They would need to be removed for, say, an MRI. But airport security shouldn’t be a problem. Morgan Ditmore, a jeweler at Billy, explains that “it’s not magnetic, because it’s gold,” so airport metal detectors “will never pick it up.” But she does note that once, while she was at an airport abroad, the metal detector went off, and the airport security staff was convinced that her bracelet had set it off. She had to explain to them that it was a metal lip balm in her pocket, not the bracelet.

These bracelets started, more often than not, as experiments in jewelry-making. Hannah Keefe, who offers bracelets out of the LA studio for her brand HannahK, explains that the first permanent bracelet she made was a result of “naturally messing around in my studio.”

But for many, like West and her friend Katie, the bracelets also have a deeper meaning. Keefe explains on her website that the bracelets are “a minimalist statement about permanence and simplicity.” While her bracelets started as an interesting design, “it was the people that I put it on who started to let me know that there was more going on here.” For many of her clients, the bracelets marked a big moment — something they wanted to remember, be it a birthday, a relationship’s start or end, or a new child. Candice Neistat, whose two jewelry brands, Finn and Billy, both offer permanent bracelets, explains that for her, “the idea was always to do it with someone,” whether a friend, a family member, or a romantic partner.

Still, the deeper meaning of these bracelets isn’t contingent on getting them with someone else. Courtney Taylor got a bracelet from Catbird on her own, to celebrate her relationship with herself. “For the last couple years, I have been processing and moving through a really immense heartbreak. I’d done a lot of inner work and was finally beginning to rebuild my confidence and self-worth,” she says. She was, she says, tired of wishing her ex was still there to hold her hand, and got the bracelet as a reminder that she could support herself. For Taylor, the bracelet is “a gentle adornment that I am wrapping around myself, holding me like the promise I made to hold myself.”

There’s a romantic symbolism to the idea of permanence. It was this romanticism that Durga Chew-Bose, in her collection of prose poems-cum-essays Too Much and Not the Mood, pushed back against. She wrote that “as girls, we held on tight to Forever. It was compulsory: the most critical, tender quota. For now, however, is a far more rational unit of measurement, and perhaps one we should encourage much earlier in life because it doesn’t require the insurance of a necklace or a bracelet, or any token really.” For Chew-Bose, for now “has little to do with girlhood’s insistence on wide-eyed hopes for the future.”

She may be right, but jewelry is a classic marker of a commitment that strives for the eternal. A ring is the most obvious example — that marker of matrimony or even possession — followed by those two-halved heart necklaces. And in 1969, Cartier came out with the Love bracelet, a gold bangle that locks onto a wrist with a special screwdriver, looking like nothing so much as a very expensive handcuff; indeed, legend has it that the design was inspired by medieval chastity belts. But, as Neistat points out, “they still come off.”

Wanting something permanent to mark a friendship, a life change, a relationship — it seems deeply human. In his book The Accidental Universe, Alan Lightman, the MIT professor, writer, and physicist, questioned “why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. ... In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts.” He notes that it is “one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”

But this desire, contradictory though it may be, is not hard to understand. Perhaps exactly because the world is so constantly slipping and changing, so vulnerable to destruction, and because so many people today feel unmoored by political turmoil and economic precarity, there is comfort in holding tight to something, in wanting things that last. It is a kind of faith.

These bracelets are also, more simply, “just cool,” as Neistat puts it. She questions “why else would you want something” — whatever its deep, symbolic meaning — if you didn’t just like it? The bracelets offered by Catbird, Billy and Finn, and HannahK vary somewhat, reflecting different brand identities. But, then, a signature style also indicates faith in a kind of permanence — in a permanent identity and a stable sense of self.

Keefe sums up these bracelets’ partly philosophical, partly aesthetic appeal best: “The thing I like about these,” she explains, “is that it’s permanence with an easy opt-out option. A lot of times when we talk about permanence, we get overwhelmed with the idea of making a decision that we will later come to regret. This is something that you can put on and it will stay with you loyally until a time in which you prefer to not have it.” Karumanchi echoes this, describing the bracelets as “like getting a piercing or a tattoo but maybe a little less so.”

Karly Delatorre, who got a permanent bracelet as a Valentine’s Day present from her husband and infant son, has one tattoo and isn’t interested in getting more, so for her, the bracelet was a perfect middle ground: “The bracelet is far more sparkly than any tattoo and seems more timeless to me. I can picture myself getting tired of a tattoo on my wrist, but the sweet dainty chain matches everything and just makes me look more put-together.” And for West, who has several tattoos, the bracelets were a way to do something permanent without getting another — and a way to bridge the gap between herself and her friend. She explains that her friend “doesn’t have any tattoos and I do, so we were both a little hesitant to get something that permanent.”

For the wearer, these bracelets project a sense of self-assuredness; they give the wearer the air of a person who knows who they are and what their future holds — they’ve committed to something, whether it’s a person, or an attitude, or even just a look. But for those who wear them, there is also the slightly secret knowledge that they are not, in fact, so serious. These bracelets can serve as a reminder of something you value, something you hope will last, but they aren’t a handcuff or an anchor tethering you in place. If you want it to, the bracelet will come off with a quick snip.

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