The art of antique hair jewelry

From Samson to Medusa to Rapunzel, hair, across many cultures, has often been imbued with mythological powers. Hair often holds sentimental value as well. What mother has not clipped locks of her toddler’s tresses and lovingly slipped them into a family album? What maiden, upon marriage or mischief, has not, on exchanging her childhood braids for married life or modern bob, bound her braids carefully in tissue paper for safekeeping?

Locks of hair, like valentines, were also once lovingly bestowed or exchanged as tokens of affection. After all, what gift could be more personal than a bit of yourself? Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bits of loved ones’ hair were often hidden in elaborate lockets, held close to the heart. Mother AT 3-5.jpgLater, many a gentleman sported pocket watch fobs containing their beloveds’ curls. Many a maiden treasured brooches that featured love knots, those traditional symbols of eternal love, fashioned from hair.

A mother’s mourning expressed in this elegant piece of hair jewelry.

The art of hair crafted jewelry evidently dates back to early nineteenth century Sweden. Swedish villages, facing a population boom along with inhospitable weather, were hard pressed to provide a livelihood. Their women, however, were blessed with an abundance of long, healthy hair, a natural commodity. No one knows who first tried her hand at commercial hair braiding and weaving, but we do know that within a short time, as friends and relatives joined in, a viable cottage industry was born. Soon groups of talented girls, laden with hair crafted brooches, hatpins, and crosses, spread out by foot across Northern Europe, hawking their wares.Victorian snake brooch AT 3-5.jpg

An intricate Victorian brooch made of hair. Today such items are highly sought after by select collectors.

Through their efforts, by the mid 1850s, hair craft tie clips, cufflinks, stickpins, and earrings, had become the height of fashion. Snake brooches, teeth cunningly made of pearls, eyes of garnets, were great Victorian favorites. So were reversible brooches, one side featuring pictures of sweethearts dolled up in their Sunday best, and the other displaying tightly woven locks of their hair. Capitalizing on this growing trend, even tea sets were made of hair.

Hair craft jewelry became so popular, in fact, that women everywhere wanted to try their own hands at it. Along with patterns for tatting lace and cross stitching, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a well-loved American women’s magazine, now included instructions for creating hair brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home. For those less artistically inclined, they also offered do-it-yourself hair crafting kits, and advertised custom made mail order pieces of jewelry. Indeed, human hair had become such a commodity that merchants often went to great lengths to secure as much as possible. Crisscrossing Europe, they offered young girls all manner of baubles and beads in exchange for their flowing tresses. Remembrance - blond Child AT 3-5.jpgAfter all, even the most modest woven bracelet, due to the intricacy of its design, required great lengths of hair.

A piece of hair jewelry like this, in remembrance of a child, may seem morbid by today’s standards, but was a commonplace mourning item in the age before photography.

Hair, like many raw materials, was used in a variety of ways. Most common, perhaps, was braiding. After requisite boiling, then dividing the hair by length into exceedingly slender bundles, the women positioned them on wooden braiding tables. Using a combination of bobbins and weights, they coaxed the strands around readymade molds. Finally, after a final boil, their creations, dry and un-molded, went to the jewelers for mounting.

Flatwork was another common hair craft technique used in brooches. Egg white was applied to strands of hair to stiffen them. While they were still wet, the strands were then combed, painstakingly, in a single direction. Flatwork AT 3-5.jpgAfter they dried, very small segments of hair were cut, then formed into exquisitely textured designs.

A fine example of ‘flatwork’ hair jewelry, elegantly crafted for a nineteenth century buyer.

Another, older technique for brooch work is called “sepia.” While we today know sepia as an old-fashioned shade of brown, Victorians knew it as an ink. First, tiny bits of hair were cut repeatedly until they turned into fine powder, completely pulverized. Then, mixed with a variety of dyes, this sentimental concoction was used to paint scenes – usually mourning scenes.

Although mourning jewelry dates back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, hair, a symbol of life, became widely associated with death in Victorian England. Queen Victoria, at the sudden loss of Prince Albert to typhoid, not only mourned until the end of her life, but also required that her court mourn with her.

In time, even common folk adopted the new fashion of full, second, or half mourning, They too accessorized their dark crepe outfits with a variety of somber accessories, including black crosses, jet beads, and sentimental shrines to the dear departed, jewelry displaying locks of their hair. Mourning brooches featured black rims signifying loss, pearls signifying tears, as well as heart breaking engravings, like “In Memoriam,” the initials of the deceased or more poignantly, “Momma and Papa.”

On the other side of the ocean, Americans, torn by the War Between the States, soon adopted the English mourning jewelry fashion. Rebs and Yanks alike, on their way to battle, frequently left locks of their hair behind with loved ones. sweetheart AT 3-5.jpgTheir reasoning was simple. Should they lose their lives, those same locks, concealed in mourning rings or engraved lockets worn close to the heart, would become sentimental reminders of shared love. Hair, like love, outlasts the grave.

Soldiers in the Civil War often left behind locks of hair for their sweethearts to decorate pictures with, should they fall in battle.

Although hair jewelry fell out of fashion in England at the death Queen Victoria in 1901, it remained popular for several decades longer in the United States. Truth be told, however, many people today find this art form morbid. Few collect it.

Leila Cohoon, proud proprietor of perhaps the world’s only hair museum, may also be the world’s leading expert on hair jewelry. She owns an inordinate number of hair craft pieces, including watch fobs, rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, chains, brooches, and hat pins. Her hair wreaths formed by wrapping hair tightly around wire, then bending it into lucky horseshoes, are the heart of her collection. Morbid? Not at all. To Leila, it’s simply an obsession.

“Hair is the only part of each human being that is still here that I can touch,” she said. “That, to me, is very special. Each piece has a story behind it. I wish I could meet each person and hear their story. Think of the DNA that is in my museum. I have more than 2,000 pieces. I buy all the time but never sell.”