Hair Work in Victorian Jewelry: Installment 4 of the Identifly Series

Hair Work in Victorian Jewelry: Installment 4 of the Identifly Series

Mourning and Sentiment

Human hair may be the material most closely associated with Victorian mourning jewelry. By modern standards the use of human hair in jewels, specifically the hair of a deceased loved one, may seem macabre; but in an era predating readily available photography, hair was one of the very few links to the deceased’s corporeal self that could survive the ages and provide a personal reminder to future generations. By wearing a hairwork mourning jewel a person may profess an enduring devotion inspired by respect or romance, duty or grief, or simply a strict adherence to the fashion dictates of Queen Victoria’s court.

hair rings and locket victorian
Three memorial jewels with hair. Pearls, which represent tears, surround a woven locket of hair. A tiny locket holds palette worked hair and a lock of hair. A memorial ring for a card player, the band holds the hair behind the cut out designs.

Recognition of the power associated with human hair is not specific to the Victorian age. Throughout recorded history, we have prized a lock of a loved one’s hair as a precious token, and the occult belief that a person’s physical or psychic strength is linked to their hair is found in many cultures. Catholic theology classifies the hair of a saint as a first-class relic, the sacred fetishes of West African religions often incorporate human hair, and uncut hair is believed to raise Kundalini energy. It is hardly surprising that this potent material came to be used as an adornment of significance. The earliest known examples of hair being worn in jewels date to the 17th century; these pieces typically commemorated an important event. During the Georgian era hair was integrated into jewelry and presented as a sign of regard. These sentimental tokens often employed symbolic materials and motifs associated with love and romance. This practice naturally came to be imbued with the symbols of grief and mortality as the Victorian obsession with the rituals of mourning took hold.

A matched pair of table worked hair bracelets with Carnelian clasps

The woman of the 19th century often saved locks of hair she collected from her family members for the purpose of working it into jewelry or other crafts such as wreaths, wigs, and pictures. Dresser sets were kept on a ladies vanity and they included not only a brush, comb, and mirror but a matching dish with a small hole in the lid called a hair receiver. It was into this she would put the hair from her brush to be made into a sentimental watch chain or jewel for her husband or loved one. Whatever hair colors her family may have sported (and hair dye was a not uncommon cosmetic of that period), brown was far and away the most popular shade of hair for working. As the fashion for hairwork grew, the value of human hair increased. One family might not provide enough hair to meet the demands of the trend, and as the era progressed the sentimental aspects of hair jewelry were less strictly considered: a stranger’s hair could be purchased and worked in a pinch. And a down-on-her-luck woman could sell her hair, a lucrative but not especially sustainable source of income.

A fancy woven pocket watch chain, woven at home and taken to a jeweler to have it fitted with the findings. A sweet gift from a wife to her husband.

Until 1865 hairworking was a craft practiced in the home, and a Victorian lady was usually equipped with a variety of tools specific to the art. There were two categories of hair work: palette work and table work. Palette work allows the hair to be manipulated into delicate patterns or images, adhered to a flat surface and then set under glass or crystal. The hair is coaxed into shape on an artist’s palette using a tiny curling iron, a knife, scissors, tweezers, pins, a ruler and a very small weight. Sometimes the hair is glued in a thin layer onto a sheet of paper which may then be cut into desired forms with a pair of scissors (called, appropriately, cut work). These designs are then mounted, usually on glass, using spirit gum and glue, and may be accented with seed pearls and gold wire. Palette work is commonly used in brooches, scarf pins, lockets or any jewel that features a flat surface. Popular motifs for this style of work include sheaves of wheat, ears of barley, feathers, flowers, willow trees, leaves, wreaths, tombs and a wonderful variety of woven designs.

Table work allows (the necessarily) long strands of hair to be woven into hollow tubes which may be formed into a neck or watch chain, a bracelet (matched bracelets, one worn on each wrist, were popular), rings or earrings. Specifically designed tables were used for this purpose, with round table tops between 14 to 18 inches in diameter that featured a small hole in the center. The hair was divided into strands; each strand was attached to a bobbin weight at one end while all of the strands were tied together and attached to a counterweight at the other end. The counterweighted end was fed down through the hole in the table while the individual strands hung over the table’s edge, held in place by the bobbins. A brass mold was inserted into the center hole to provide structure as the strands are woven together and the tube takes shape. Patterns were used to create a seemingly endless variety of beautiful weaves. The tubes may be shaped into beads using thread or wire for constriction.

A table worked necklace of brunette hair, showing the shaping of tubes into beads.

During the Victorian era, the fashion for hairwork jewelry became a craze. Hair was worked in numerous ways, both by professional jewelers and by ladies in their sitting rooms. The methods and styles of hairworking reflect the arc of cultural and fashion trends that we see in other styles of Victorian mourning jewelry, from the early era’s delicate jewels handcrafted with personal sentiment to machined items mass produced to meet the demands of ubiquitous mourning to a complete and seemingly permanent rejection of the material at the era’s late stage. At their finest, hairwork jewels feature a specific person’s hair worked exquisitely into images or woven plaits of incredible detail. The hair was set in precious metals, embellished with enamel, seed pearls, gold wire or other materials symbolic of mourning and finished with a hand engraved message of remembrance. As the fashion for mourning jewelry and industrialization progressed, the art of hairworking moved from the home into the factory. By 1865 the majority of hairwork was done by machine and the mass production of these jewels using horsehair instead of human hair was not uncommon.


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