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Dr. Lori: Art & Antiques Collecting bell charms


Along with shoulder pads, fingerless lace gloves, jelly shoes, parachute pants, add-a-bead necklaces, oversized hoop earrings, giant scrunchies, neon headbands, Sony Walkmans, Swatch watches, and Rubik’s cubes, one of the most popular and inclusive trends of the unforgettable 1980s was bell charms. Collecting bell charms was widely popular, open to all ages, inexpensive, fun, diverse, and ultimately, very satisfying. They were the ultimate birthday party favor for tweens and teens who danced to songs like Madonna’s “Material Girl,” The Go Go’s “Our Lips are Sealed,” and Bon Jovi’s “Runaway.”

So, you’re a child of the 1980s and you remember the drop waist Laura Ashley dresses, had a copy of the Preppie Handbook, and wore ruffle-collared blouses, but you just don’t remember bell charms? Well, you are not alone. Why? These were not made of quality materials, they were not at the forefront of the collecting arena in the mid-1980s and since they looked like something that came out of a Cracker Jack box from the 1960s, many people missed the bell charm trend altogether.

Known interchangeably as bell charms or flash charms, the most coveted examples of these collectible toys were mass produced by a handful of toy companies: Jingle Gems, Imperial, and Boogie Oogie charms. Each of the tiny bell charms hung from a colorful plastic clip which could be attached to the pocket of a denim jacket, a plastic link necklace, backpack, belt loop, etc. There were different styles of bell charms which helped collectors distinguish between which manufacturers produced a specific charm.

The plastic charms were brightly colored and realistic versions in miniature of everyday items…telephones, cookie jars, scales, articulated figures, batteries, fire hydrants, keys, Oreo cookies, traffic lights, mirrors, whistles, tennis rackets, bird houses, dress shirts, race cars, blenders, kitchen sinks, hearts, boom boxes, robots, shoes, eggplants, 7UP bottles, calculators, basketball hoops, orange juice containers, dune buggies, Snoopy from the Peanuts comic strip, strawberries, pool tables, footballs, pianos, bananas, guitars, baseball bats, unicorns, boots, mailboxes, candles, bicycles, vinyl records, even toilets.

This list of bell charm types illustrates how wild collectors were about buying the tiny charms. It shows how the bright, neon-colored charms were traded actively and with vigor. Many collectors spent months looking for a specific, ever-elusive figural charm of an Olympic swimmer or a tub of Play-Doh. Others attempted to amass the largest collection of bell charms. They’d continually clip the newest charm added to their collection to a bright pink or yellow link chain which could be worn as a necklace or hung from a bedroom mirror. Some dedicated collectors would collect bell charms and keep them in a protective vinyl binder housing their collectibles for both storage and display.

Trading bell charms became so intense that some American schools banned the toys as schoolyard trade deals grew into full-blown arguments. Teachers complained that the tiny bells distracted students from learning. Despite the criticism from school administrators and teachers over the little plastic items, bell charms were a fun collecting trend, and collecting them was not falling by the wayside—not by a long shot. Some report that all the academic-based hoopla about banning bell charms just made them more desirable and more sought after by kids.

Bell charms came in boxed sets on a chain and individually. Some wore them as jewelry on chains, others just kept them close at hand. No matter the goal of a bell charm collection, they were colorful and fun. Today, a large and diverse collection of bell charms can bring you some cash from collectors. Most range in value between $5 and $10 each for typical examples, $15-$20 each for rare examples, and large collections with original link chains filled with charms command several hundred to thousands of dollars with devoted 1980s bell charmers.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori Verderame appears on History channel’s “The Curse of Oak Island” and “Pawn Stars do America.” Visit, watch her “Real Bargains” show on or call 888-431-1010.

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