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The Vault: Victorian Hairwork Jewellery

May 20, 2024
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The fad for hair incorporated in jewellery can be observed in literary references as early as the 16th century but gained widespread popularity throughout the 19th century. Although the inclusion of hair in jewellery is now interpreted as an item of memorial, this was not always the case. The gifting of hair was a tradition between friends, family members and romantic interests. Hair was interpreted as the 'self' and was exchanged with the utmost sincerity as tokens of love and affection. Jewellery containing hair would ultimately be transformed into the status of relic upon the person's death. However, there is a distinction that can be made between items used specifically for the purposes of mourning and for sentimental jewels gifted upon other occasions.

The 19th century saw an increase in the popularity of jewellery incorporating hair and as the century progressed an entire industry specialising in the production of hairwork jewellery would emerge. The vogue for sentimental jewellery had begun in the century prior, spurred on by the movement of Romanticism. Jewellery of this period incorporates strong use of allegory, hidden symbolism and a trend for personal relic. These themes were perpetuated by a young Queen Victoria whose sentimental nature reflected her tender age. Her marriage to Prince Albert was a good match for both political stability and personal affections. Prince Albert showered Queen Victoria with deeply sentimental jewels that would set the broader fashion for what is now referred to as the Romantic Period of jewellery.

Queen Victoria's personal loss of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 plunged the queen into a deep mourning for which she would never fully recover. The queen's mourning was observed by the nation and dictated the social standards for mourning practices in Britain. A fixed period of mourning in which the bereaved would be required to follow specific practices in dress and behaviour were observed. The custom of gifting mourning rings was already widely practiced by the 19th century and had been a part of funeral traditions since the 16th century. However, as the British nation was plunged into perpetual mourning with their queen, the industry and fad for hairwork jewellery skyrocketed.

The queen's personal mourning was in many ways the catalyst for the vogue of hair jewellery. However, there was a greater social context that made this form of jewellery resonate with the masses. Death was an incessant visitor in the Victorian home as disease and war contributed to high fatality rates. In the early Victorian era, photography was still an emerging technology and therefore personal souvenirs were often the best physical representation of loved ones. The shared experience of mourning, grief and a desire to remember their loved ones, was the true driving force behind the purpose and importance of hairwork jewellery. When we consider physical fragments as relic, we can understand the comfort that these items provided.

In the book Love Entwined by Helen Scheumaker these objects are likened to physical tokens of love and grief.

"The immediate grief of a young husband felt upon the death of his wife was immaterial in that no matter how much psychic pain he had experienced, it wasn't "real" physical trauma. But his watch chain made of her hair upon her death physically manifested that grief and provided a constant reminder of the validity of the experience. The watch chain told the story of his grief to an audience of himself and anyone who observed the garb."

Hairwork jewellery and ornamentation was a craft that was performed at home predominately by female family members. Large and intricate displays of hairwork would be weaved from the hair of family members to create somewhat esoteric family trees. Woven hair on the reverse of lockets was ubiquitous by the 19th century, however as the popularity for hairwork increased designs became more elaborate. Three forms of hairwork can be observed across jewellery from this time including sepia work, palette work and table work. The most common of these practices performed in the home was table work where hair was weaved through a donut-shaped wooden tabletop to create a dimensional braid of hair, often used to create sections of a watch chain. Sepia work was created using finely chopped pieces of hair and mixing it with an adhesive paste. Then, typically on pieces of ivory, the paste was used as a form of paint to create small, detailed scenes of funerary art, before being set under a piece of crystal. Palette work included the hair being worked into decorative curls or woven sections and adhered to a backing, typically a card stock, and then set under a glass or crystal.

Hairwork was initially a popular past time for women, however, as the mourning industry escalated the role of professional hair workers emerged. These craftspeople would work alongside a jeweller, providing examples of patterns and designs that they could complete to the client. If a piece was commissioned, the hair worker would complete the design with the hair provided by the customer and then the jeweller would add fittings or set the pieces into lockets to be worn as jewellery. Unfortunately, as the demand for hairwork jewellery grew, some unethical businesses would swap or add hair from an unknown individual, to complete more elaborate design or for economic reasons. The knowledge of these poor practices created great anxiety to customers, as the possibility that the hair used was not that of their loved one was deeply upsetting to the individual. The commodification of hairwork and the removal of the trade from outside the household and into a business setting, jeopardised the sincerity and authenticity of the work.

Hairwork was incorporated in jewellery of every form and is perhaps the most intimate form of jewellery ever created. The intention behind these items was to serve as poignant reminders of their loved ones and were often the only physical mementos that the families had of the deceased. These items now remain as curious connections to a bygone era.

These items are on permanent display at Kalmar Antiques as part of The Kalmar Vault Collection.

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