Vintage hair jewelry, even today, is mainly associated with mourning and achieved its height of popularity during the 19th century.
Hair jewelry is made from braiding human hair together and then sewing the braided pieces together. During the 19th century, hair braids were combined with gold and stones to create rings, brooches, bracelets and other types of jewelry.
Photography was still a new, evolving technology during the 19th century. The costs of taking photographs were prohibitive for many, as was sitting for a painter to have a portrait painted. However, carrying a piece of a loved one's hair or wearing hairwork jewelry was a way to keep a memento close if separated by distance or death.
Mourning hair jewelry
Victoria ascended to the throne of England in 1837 when she was 18 years old. Three years later, on February 10, 1840, she married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The two were very close. The couple had nine children during their years together. Prince Albert was also was a key adviser to Queen Victoria during his lifetime.
Prince Albert died of typhoid on December 14, 1861. Queen Victoria was devastated by the sudden loss of her husband and remained in mourning for the rest of her life. They were both 42 years old at the time of his death.
Queen Victoria set the standards for mourning etiquette. During the Victorian era, there were strict, and sometimes contradictory, rules about proper mourning. Hairwork jewelry was one of the few types of jewelry that was considered proper to wear after the deep mourning period was over. Queen Victoria continued to wear black, and mourning jewelry, until her death in 1901.
Hairwork jewelry was also popular in the United States. The outbreak of the Civil War fueled the popularity of hair jewelry as men throughout the North and the South left their families to fight in battlefields away from home.
Crafting hair jewelry
Making hair jewelry was a popular pastime during the latter half of the 19th century. Instructions on how to make hair jewelry were included in books such as Godey's Lady's Book, which included the following description of hair, c. 1850, to advocate mourning hairwork:
"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare note with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now."
For those interested in obtaining beauty, and sometimes history, collecting jewelry provides many rewards. From antiques to modernized pieces, jewelry makes for a wonderful collectible.