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Victorian Times: The Non-Mourning Tradition of Hairwork Jewelry

Tanzy Ward

Although hairwork jewelry is synonymous with mourning mementos of the Victorian Grand Period (1861-1880), the trend extends beyond its lamentation inspirations. Historically, some of the earliest forms of hairwork jewelry originated during the Middle Ages (500-c.1450). King Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648) gifted his queen, Anna Catherine of Brandenburg (1575-1612) a gold bracelet with braided strands of hair belonging to him. It was not uncommon to use human hair strands to emphasize adoration and love for a loved one. Hairwork jewelry was also less costly and more accessible than gemstone accessories. Consequently, hairwork jewelry was also a sentimental cost-effective option for civilians and non-aristocrats during the Middle Ages as well. 

(King Christian IV of Denmark and his queen, Anna Catherine of Brandenburg with their son Christian, Prince-Elect of Denmark. King Christian IV of Denmark gifted Queen Anna Catherine a gold bracelet containing strands of his hair. The painting above was originally two separate portraits and was painted by Pieter Isaacsz, c. 1612. A part of the Rosenborg Castle Collection. Source Photographer: The Royal Danish Collections http://dkks.dk/chr-iv-og-anne-cathrine-161 (Transferred by Anne-Sophie Ofrim)

  

 Many Victorian Era jewelry (1837-1901) is affiliated with the mourning trend of the Grand Era (1861-81). Queen Victorian (1819-1901) was grieving the loss of her husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861) and sparked a prolific trend after wearing mourning memento accessories during the period. She began to dress in all black and commissioned sentimental mourning memento accessories, including a brooch that contained lockets of Prince Albert's hair. Although a substantial amount of hairwork jewelry was inspired by grief or remembrance of a dearly departed loved one, the trend also includes sentimental pieces to honor the living. 

Mourning Fashion and Etiquette in the Victorian Era
(Queen Victoria After The Passing of Prince Albert, Pictured Wearing Mourning Attire, Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace)

 

During the 19th century, hairwork jewelry became a popular trend in high demand. Sentimental jewelry pieces became increasingly worn and strands of hair were incorporated into the pieces. Jewelry businesses and firms created catalogues for customed hairwork accessories. The impressive collection included watch chains, earrings, brooches, bracelets, and lockets. While some hairwork jewelry designs involved the strands being placed in secured enclosed compartments, others were completely designed from hair follicles. Victorian hairwork jewelry collections include intricately entwined hair strands made into earrings and woven bracelets. The process involved a steady hand and keen attention to detail. Preparation for creating hairwork jewelry was extensive and required a substantial amount of labor. Before designing the jewelry, hair strands were boiled in soda water, sorted & divided into twenty to thirty strands.
 
Book page image
(Charles T. Menge's price list of ornamental hair jewelry and device work, nos. 32 and 34 John Street, New York. Courtesy of archive.org/Smithsonian Collection)
Book page image
(Charles T. Menge's price list of ornamental hair jewelry and device work, nos. 32 and 34 John Street, New York. Courtesy of archive.org/Smithsonian Collection)
Historical magazines like Godey's Lady Book (1830-1878) and Peterson's Magazine (1842-1898) published articles detailing how to create hairwork jewelry. The patterns and directions within the magazines inspired many Victorian ladies to create hairwork jewelry and the process became a treasured recreational hobby. The trend was not limited to mourning memento designs, but included sentimental pieces that honored the living. One of the most popular hairwork designs included watch chains with a braided strand of hair from the gentleman's significant other. Another common trend included hair strands of a loved one inside a hidden compartment of a sweetheart bracelet. The symbolic gesture of having a loved one's hair incorporated into accessories was considered a beautiful daily gesture of remembrance. Victorians were not only dedicated to honoring the dearly departed, but they were quite romantic as well.
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(Godey's Lady's Book And Magazine 1867-05: Vol 74.Godey's Lady Book published in-depth articles with detailed instructions and designs for hairwork jewelry. Courtesy of Archive.org/Kahle/Austin Foundation)
Hairwork accessories became a daily preference and 19th century jewelry companies began to offer catalogues dedicated to the trend. Jewelry firms offered versatile designs for customed hairwork accessories. A mother could have her children's hair strands designed into a bracelet or locket. Religious hairwork pieces such as crosses could be intricately designed into earrings. Impressive hairwork collections incorporated other quality materials, including precious metals and gemstones. Customed hairwork designs would also be fitted by a jeweler and additional features would be incorporated. Gold and sterling silver clasps, symbolic engravings, compartments for photographs, and miniatures, and mounted gemstones were beautifully integrated to create stunning hairwork jewelry. The finished design and outcome showcased fine craftsmanship and superb detail.
 
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(The Jeweller's Book of Pattern in Hairworks. Featuring versatile brooches, rings, lockets, chains, and links, and studs. By William Halford & Charles Young Firm, 1864; Cooper Union Library Courtesy of Archive.org via Smithsonian Collection)
Book page image
(The Jeweller's Book of Pattern in Hairworks. Featuring versatile brooches, rings, lockets, chains, and links, and studs. By William Halford & Charles Young Firm, 1864; Cooper Union Library Courtesy of Archive.org via Smithsonian Collection)
Historically, hairwork jewelry extends beyond mourning mementos. Although honoring departed loved ones is a significant part of decorative hairwork history, honoring the living is a momentous portion as well. In modern times, curating hairwork jewelry is a popular antique industry trend and continues to be in high demand for avid collectors. Although the symbolic gesture of hairwork jewelry is no longer a preferred option for daily ready to wear, there is a growing market of independent jewelry artisans designing hairwork pieces. When observing original antique hairwork accessories, it is rather intriguing and compelling to ponder on the stories behind the pieces.
Book page image
(The Jeweller's Book of Pattern in Hairworks. Featuring versatile brooches, rings, lockets, chains, and links, and studs. By William Halford & Charles Young Firm, 1864; Cooper Union Library Courtesy of Archive.org via Smithsonian Collection)
Hairwork jewelry is a form of storytelling and a sentimental gesture from the past. It is important to preserve and study antique hairwork jewelry, which includes symbolic historical primary sources. Memento mourning depictions may be the poster child for hairwork jewelry references, but its intriguing history includes more than celebrating the life of a departed loved one. Hairwork jewelry was a sentimental gesture of love to celebrate births, romances, life milestones, and adoration for the living. The diversity and compelling stories behind hairwork jewelry continues to fascinate and educate us in the 21st century.
 

 

 


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