QUESTION: I recently attended an antiques show at which one of the dealers had a beautiful display of antique hair mourning jewelry. What can you tell me about this unique art form? Is it still practiced today?
ANSWER: Mourning jewelry was a souvenir to remember a loved one, a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death, and a status symbol, especially during the Victorian Era.
The earliest examples of mourning jewelry originated in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. People often set black-and-white enameled heads or skulls into rings and brooches. In the 17th' and 18th centuries hair became a status symbol to present mourning rings to friends and families of the bereaved.
Mourning jewelry reached its peak popularity in England after the death of Prince Albert in December 1861. Queen Victoria went into deep mourning, which her subjects imitated when faced with their own bereavement:.
Hair, a symbol of life, has been associated with death and funerals in many cultures Egyptian tomb paintings portray scenes showing pharaohs and queens exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love.
But it was in Sweden that commercial hairwork began centuries later. The craft of hairwork spread throughout Europe. Jewelers made beautifully detailed landscapes and floral designs using human hair. In England in the late 18th century they bordered early neo-classical style pieces with seed pearls surrounding the words "In Memorium" and a panel of simple, twisted hair. During the 19th century, Queen Victoria presented Empress Eugene with a bracelet of her own hair, and the Queen recorded in her diary that the Empress was "touched to tears."
The 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition featured a full line of hair jewelry, as well as a full tea set made entirely of hair. By the 1850s hair was an expensive commodity with a variety of commercial uses. Every spring hair merchants visited fairs and markets throughout Europe where they offered young girls ribbons, combs and trinkets in exchange for their hair.
Hair jewelry caught on in the United States by the 1860s. During the Civil War, soldiers would leave a lock of their hair with their families as they left home to join the fight. Upon the soldier's death, the family would often have the hair made into a piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket. These were gold or black, and were sometimes engraved with "In Memory Of" and the initials or names of the deceased.
Beginning in the 1850s through the 1900s, hairwork became a drawing room pastime. Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine gave instructions and patterns for making brooches, cuff links and bracelets at home. To further the craze for the home-based craft, Godey's reminded readers that while mourning etiquette said that women should only wear jet jewelry for first mourning, for the second mourning, a woman could wear a brooch and bracelet made of hair with a gold and black enamel clasp. Even a watch chain or plain gold belt buckle was permissible for widowers to wear if made of hair or if it enclosed hair.
Women did hairwork on a round table. Depending on the height of the table, it could be done sitting or standing. Women's work tables were usually 32 or 33 inches high, and men's tables stood 4 feet. Preparation was important. The hair had to be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes. It was then sorted into lengths and divided into strands of 20 to 30 hairs. Most pieces of jewelry required long hair. For example, a full-size bracelet called for hair 20 to 24 inches long. Sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and thus easier for beginners.
Women made almost all hairwork around a old or firm material. Snake bracelets and brooches, spiral earrings and other fancy hair forms required special molds which local wood turners made for them. The women attached the mold to the center hole in the worktable. Then they wound the hair on a series of bobbins. They attached weights to the braid work to maintain the correct level and to keep the hair straight. When they finished and while the work was still around the mold, they removed the hair and the mold, boiled it for 15 minutes, then dried and removed the hair from the mold. It was then ready to be sent to a jewelers for mounting.
The use of mourning jewelry slowly died out at the beginning of the 20th century. Hair jewelry and other forms of hairwork were particularly popular during the 19th century but are still practiced today as a home craft.
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