Although jewelry made from human hair has existed throughout much of recorded history, a combination of Queen Victoria’s favor and a surfeit of out-of-work wig makers led the artform to boom in the second half of the 19th century. Following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria made mourning a national obsession until her own death 40 years later. Throughout that period, she made many aspects of death, dying and remembrance — from black gowns and jet jewelry to death and spirit photography — popular among the well dressed and well heeled of British society.
Few of these trends continue to elicit a level of fascination as does human hair jewelry — or hairwork. Given hair’s strength and resistance to rot, memorial pieces made from or with hair were a lasting reminder of a special loved one who had passed on. Tightly woven chains, orbs and mats of human hair were incorporated into rings, pins, watch fobs, lockets, earrings, bows and even wreaths and table drapes.
Elaborate patterns and tutorials could be found in homemaking guides and popular magazines. The craft of hairwork became a very personal, hands-on way to show respect and love for the deceased while cherishing their memory through a treasure to pass to future generations.
While much of the most elaborate hair jewelry was intended in memoriam of a deceased loved one, similar pieces were also crafted to commemorate more joyous occasions. A betrothal, wedding or birth could also be marked by a gift of hairwork. To distinguish these types of pieces from true memorial work, consider the motif. Symbols like lilies, urns, angels and willow trees are more common in remembrance jewelry. Figures like a dove or even a monogram suggest a piece from the living for the living.
Today, hairwork can be found at better antique stores, oddity shops and online. Often times, the price will be dictated by the condition of the hair work, the detailed nature of the pattern or piecing and the cost of any attached findings — such as gold and gemstones.