My friend Lily started this. She’s as mad for jewelry as I am, and perhaps even more dogged in its pursuit. She told me she’d been searching for years for a tank bracelet. I had no idea what that was, but it turned out to be something quite specific: French, from the 1940s, massive and gold. These bracelets are said to be modeled on the tank tracks that crisscrossed France during the war—a grim inspiration for something so exuberant. But then, a lot of 1940s jewelry was as playful as that decade was austere.
Why had I never heard of these things? I googled ’40s french tank bracelet’ and found images of huge, industrial-looking hunks of gold. I couldn’t imagine wearing anything so massive, but started keeping an eye out for tanks on Lily’s behalf. In Paris last summer, I saw one in the window of a shop called Dary’s (which I wrote about here). When Lily visited Dary’s a few months later, she learned that their tank was gold plate, which didn’t interest her. But at another shop in the same neighborhood, Lily found the tank of her dreams, below. She was even able to wangle a discount, smart shopper that she is.
Lily was over the moon with her bracelet, not least because she’d waited so long to find it. It’s 18 karat rose gold—many tanks are rose gold, or a combination of rose and yellow. The photo below gives a better idea of just how rosy this gold is.
I’m sure you already know that the pink color of rose gold comes from copper: the more copper, the pinker the gold. Fourteen karat rose gold, for example, is 58 percent gold and 42 percent copper alloys, so it’s pretty damn pink. But 18 karat rose gold is typically 75 percent gold, 21 percent copper and about 5 percent silver. It’s a beautiful, rich rose—a rose of a different color.
Tanks are heavy; the gold alone costs a small fortune. And the rarity of these bracelets can push their price into the stratosphere. But wait a minute—weren’t the 1940s a decade of scarcity, when metals were needed for the war effort? Yes. But according to a dealer Lily consulted, there was a greater need for platinum than for gold. So platinum jewelry went out of fashion, and hunky gold came in.
I am not a competitive person. Or maybe I am. When I saw a photo of Lily’s tank—she lives in Europe, and I haven’t seen it in person—I started thinking it might be nice to own one. So I did a little online searching. There were tanks offered at 1stdibs.com, but the prices were jaw-dropping—for bracelets nowhere near as massive as Lily’s. I learned that there are American-made tanks, also from the 40s. These are 14 karat gold, not 18, but that doesn’t make them any cheaper.
What if I could find a tank at a better price? I asked my jeweler friend Nan if she’d seen any on 47th Street (New York’s jewelry district, her stomping ground). ‘Sometimes I find them at the smelter, about to be melted down,’ she said. ‘And there are some estate dealers I’d like to know better. Want me to check them out for you?’ I said yes.
But there were few tanks on 47th Street. Nothing at the smelter, and no bargains in the stores. The tank above, different from Lily’s but definitely in the style, was magnificent. And unusually, it was short enough to fit me.
Trying on this bracelet was a total trip. Even in the store’s fluorescent lighting (you’d think jewelry dealers would care more about such things), it was an object of desire. But look at the tag: 71.5 DWT, which is short for pennyweight. This bracelet is 3.9 ounces of 18 karat gold. It’s also vintage, rare, and in pristine condition. I’m not going to tell you the asking price. But I didn’t buy it.
Nan also located the bracelet above, which I liked because it had brick-shaped links similar to a Mexican silver bracelet of mine (in the background). It was 14 karat gold and significantly cheaper. But there was something not quite right about the texture of the links. And the dealer wasn’t all that nice either.
Finally, Nan took me to an estate jewelry dealer who had an honest-to-goodness rose gold French tank. And a beautiful tank it was, below.
It wasn’t as big as Lily’s, but it suited me. It felt good. And the price was reasonable, considering. But it was just that little bit too long—and removing a link would have made it too short. So I gave up.
But I didn’t walk away. This dealer had one more bracelet that Nan, with her unerring eye, wanted me to see.
It wasn’t a tank. But it was French, 18K rose gold and unlike anything I had ever seen. ‘It’s from the 1940s, right?’ I asked. Nope. It’s Victorian, from the 1860s. (Hallmarks on French gold are definitive.) And it has survived in almost perfect condition.
It isn’t as heavy as a tank, because—somehow—the massive, squared-off links are hollow. It’s sinuous, fluid, a work of art—the bracelet I didn’t know I was looking for. But I own it now. And I’m tankful.
The beautifully wrought French Victorian bracelet—which looks like a continuous spiral but is actually a double curb link chain—is exactly the same on the back as on the front.