The Wacky World of 1980s Bell Charms

a storage binder full of hanging plastic bell charms
An impressive 1980s plastic bell charms collection, including the collector’s storage binder.

Am I alone in thinking that the 1980s were the most highly regretted fashion decade? The era has seen its fair share of comebacks, from track jackets to shoulder pads to neon (as Gwen Stefani proved at this year’s Met Gala). Overall, though, it feels like memories of the age of acid-washed-denim and leg-warmers are usually met with a laugh. I only experienced the ’80s for three years, so there’s not much for me to remember. Sometimes I can’t tell if dancing to AC/DC in my parents’ living room is a real memory or one I’ve only watched through old family VHS tapes. Recently, at an estate sale, I came across a 1980s trend that I couldn’t believe I’d missed. With their colorful plastic hook, tiny bell, and miniature-sized figurines, I’d assumed they were pulls for zippers. Later, after some research, I discovered the loveable world of bell charms.

Also known as flash charms, the bell charm trend first took off in the mid-1980s. The miniature plastic objects were typically clipped onto belt loops or attached to matching plastic chain-link necklaces which varied in color. When browsing through flash charms, you can’t help but think of another toy trend, Shrinky Dinks. Imagine taking anything from real life, whether a desk lamp, a billiards table, a thermometer, a Thermos, or Santa Claus, and shrinking them down to about the size of a matchbook. These are all options in the realm of the plastic bell charm and what makes them so collectible. Their impressive creativity allowed kids to express their unique style based on their hobbies, whatever they may have been!

a plastic bell charm resembling a miniature pool table
A miniature pool table in the form of a plastic bell charm. These pool tables came in various colors, depending on the manufacturer.

Collecting Plastic Bell Charms

Because this trend was mass-produced, it’s easy to find bell charms at any yard sale or Goodwill. Some craft stores even started selling updated versions in recent years. The challenge becomes looking for a specific charm figure. Here, we might have one of those instances where you take what you can get, which can be part of the fun! As with collecting other fads like Beanie Babies or Pogs, sometimes Kiwi the Toucan or the holographic slammer weren’t available in your local five-and-dime. You’d spend your allowance on whatever they had, add it to your collection, and long for the next week’s inventory to bring something rare. Collecting bell charms today is no different. Your best bet is to purchase a mystery lot and love each for what it is.

a pink chainlink necklace adorned with twelve colorful bell charms
You can almost imagine the clanging sound by looking at this necklace with twelve charms and twelve bells!

At the height of their popularity, the best way to procure a coveted charm was to trade. But, as Wendy, a representative from The Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls, and Toys, tells us in a YouTube video from 2020, it wasn’t unheard of for schools to ban the toy-slash-accessory due to black-top arguments over serious bartering. Another reason was an intense clanging jingle they made while students walked from one classroom to the next. The Miniatures Museum is a great place to visit if you want to see bell charms in person but don’t have any space to collect your own. For now, would it be too weird for adults to start bell charm swap parties? I’m not above it.

Plastic Bell Charms: A Deep Dive

The coolest part about the bell charms is their variety of colors, styles, and shapes. Some might even surprise you, like this scale or blender, probably the most kitschy of all (A blender? Come on!). You’ll even find miniature versions of your most dependable brands like 7UP, Sunkist orange juice, and Maxell batteries.

Whistles made a sound when used, mirrors opened up to reveal your reflection, and notebooks came with useable paper.

a plastic bell charm resembling a miniature Sunkist orange juice
An adorable miniature Sunkist orange juice in the form of a plastic bell charm.

The difference in styles and subtleties in production reveal different manufacturers. While some flash charms showcased a 3-D look, others appeared 2-D. Some characters came with googly eyes when others didn’t. Some read “Taiwan” on the back, and some of the backs are blank. The three most popular names in flash charm production that we’ve come across are the Imperial company, Boogie Oogie charms, and Jingle Gems. The Imperial company is a toy manufacturer known for making all-things miniature. The Boogie Oogie trademark appeared on a checkered box set which included twelve charms and a twenty-four-inch chain necklace. The box claimed, “the newest rage in jewelry, bright charms snapped to a chain.” Jingle Gems were a brand started by two sisters, ages eleven and eight.

Storing Plastic Bell Charms

Any successful toy company knows how to get the most bang for their buck by not just manufacturing toys but also accessories for those toys. The best flash charm accessory has to be the Imperial company’s Trapper Keeper-style storage system. A light purple binder with a deep purple chain-link border on its cover housed rows of holes where each charm could live when not being worn as an accessory. The cover read “Chains, Charms ’N’ Things: Charm Collectors Album – For My Charm Collection” and featured brightly colored illustrations of various charms: a flounder fish, a teddy bear, a unicorn comb, and a baby chick hatching from an egg among them. Some of the binders for sale today even come with their original owners’ curated charms still archived inside.

The cover of a storage binder for bell charms, reading “Chains, Charms ’N’ Things: Charm Collectors Album - For My Charm Collection”
A close-up of the charm collector’s binder cover.

Repurposing Plastic Bell Charms

A few years ago, I purchased an item from a crafter on Etsy. It was a set of earrings featuring a miniature peach plunger and a neon pink and yellow toilet. It reminded me of something Princess Peach, the one true love of video game character and plumber Mario, would wear. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the items used to make the earrings were plastic bell charms, detached from their original form.

Because of the uniqueness of each charm, there are endless possibilities for repurposing. Attach the hook to a key chain, zipper, or belt loop to customize your outfit for any occasion. Remove the bell and plastic hook to create your own set of earrings. These would also be fun to attach to the handles of a gift bag. All that said, this is one ’80s trend I wouldn’t mind seeing come back around, so long as it came with a modern twist.

If you want to read more about vintage fashion items, check out these articles on vintage denim jeans and concert tees.

Jackie Yaeger is a freelance writer and content creator. Her current work is centered around sustainable fashion and independent archiving. She lives both vegan and secondhand-only lifestyles and loves attending estate sales.

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