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Gone But Not Forgotten
by Bob Brooke


The Victorians were obsessed with death. Life during those times was far from easy and lots of people died young. Disease, childbirth, and the harsh environment all contributed to the high mortality rate. As a result, the specter of death was a persistent presence that permeated the lives of Victorians. Not only did people follow strict mourning rituals, but they also wore jewelry to remind them of a loved one. For much of this mourning jewelry, human hair was the primary ingredient.

While mourning jewelry has been around since at least the 17th century, most people associate it with the Victorian Era, when mass production made it affordable.

Long before photography, and when painted portraits were outside the realm of affordability for most people, it was still important for people to have a personal keepsake of a loved one. In the 17th century, jewelers created medallions with the deceased’s initials in gold on a background of woven hair set under crystal. Loved ones and friends often wore these as a memorial to a recently deceased loved one.

The trend reached its peak after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria, as well as members of her court, wore black clothing and matching mourning jewelry for several decades.

Thanks to Queen Victoria, black jewelry became quite fashionable. Jewelers fashioned the best pieces out of jet, a fossilized coal found near Whitby, England. Less expensive alternatives included black glass, black enamel, vulcanite, a hardened rubber, and bog oak, which is more of a brown color but still dark enough to express somber sentiments.

Early hair jewelry was usually made in cooperation with goldsmiths producing beautiful and expensive creations of hair mounted in gold and often decorated with pearls or precious stones. Pieces constructed with precious materials by artisans were naturally very expensive.

The popularity of hair jewelry peaked in the 1850s but after the Civil War there was a trend to producing artwork from hair. Hair artisans created pictures and mosaics under glass domes or in frames using hair from different people in different colors. They created hair trees from hair from each family member using a picture of the family, ribbons, dried flowers, butterflies and even stuffed birds. They also wove wreaths of hair.

Makers of hair jewelry obtained hair for all of these various uses from cuttings of the deceased's head or collected from hair brushes. Prior to the mid 19th century, they stored this hair in cloth bags until they had gathered enough to make a piece. In the last half of the century, makers of porcelain and ceramics began to produce pieces designed specifically to hold hair.

Women painstakingly wove human hair into bracelets, necklaces, and rings. However, the hair wasn’t necessarily from the deceased. In the mid-19th century, mourning jewelry makers imported 50 tons of human hair annually into England. To create a connection to a deceased loved one, jewelers often discreetly wove the initials of the deceased into the jewelry object.

Lockets were also popular. Some contained a lock of the deceased person’s hair. Other lockets held a photo of the dearly departed.

Mourning rings were the most common form of early mourning jewelry in the 18th century. People gave them to family members and close friends, paying for them through the estate of the deceased.

During the first two decades of the 19th century, rings were still the most common form of mourning jewelry, but brooches and miniatures set in pendant settings began to gain favor. Often these pieces incorporated the hair of the deceased into their designs. Brooches featured woven plaits or cut curls and feathers of hair set in compartments under glass, while miniaturists would either glue hair onto the surface of the picture or grind it up and mix it with the paint. Each piece could also be set with a different color braid of hair, faceted jet beads and seed pearls, which were a symbol of tears. Jet and hair continued to be used in mourning jewelry until the end of the 19th century.

The etiquette for mourning dress also became extremely elaborate and stringent during the Victorian era. The 25th edition of the Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture, published in 1893, describes how the deepest mourning for a widow should last two years. During the first year of mourning, she could wear only black wool without any trimmings or jewelry except for jet pins and buckles. Women wore black silk with white collars and cuffs and jet jewelry during the second period of mourning, which lasted six months. Mourning etiquette permitted items of clothing in gray, white, and violet during the last six months of mourning along with jewelry made of jet, gold, and other dark colored materials such as onyx, hair, and tortoiseshell.

Human hair mourning jewelry grew in popularity because human hair doesn’t decay with the passing of time. Hair has chemical qualities that cause it to last for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Additionally, by the 19th century many hair artists and wig makers had lost most of their customers after powdered wigs went out of fashion.

Hair jewelry workshops existed throughout Europe. Buyers of human hair traveled the countryside and purchased hair from poor peasants, sometimes in exchange for a scarf, ribbon or other small luxury object. In addition to the needs for hair jewelry, there was still a need for great amounts of hair for braids and switches that women wanted to purchase for their coiffeurs. Hair artisans made most hair jewelry, however, from a person of special interest's hair, whether that was a famous figure or a family member or friend.

Many women of the 19th century began crafting their own hairwork in their homes. In America, popular magazines of the period, like Godey's Lady's Book, printed patterns and offered starter kits with the necessary tools for sale. Books of the period, like Mark Cambell's Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work offered full volumes devoted to hairwork and other "fancywork," the common name for predominately female crafts at the time.

Another reason for the construction of hair jewelry in the home was a lack of trust in commercial manufacturers. They were concerned that the hair used in the jewelry wouldn’t be the hair that had been given to the jeweler, having been substituted with hair from someone else.

People mostly abandoned the practice of rigorous mourning codes along with the use of mourning jewelry in the early 20th century.

To see some fine examples of mourning hair jewelry, visit the Dearborn Historical Society in Dearborn , Michigan or the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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