Hair Jewelry: Remembrance That Never Dies
The 19th century saw an explosion in the popularity of jewelry made from human hair. Because hair does not decompose after its removal from the body, it was considered a symbol of eternal life. Locks of hair were often given as tokens of friendship, love, or grief and these locks were sometimes incorporated into jewelry. In the mid-19th century, enterprising jewelry makers braided, wove, and sewed hair into such keepsakes, offering a variety of shapes and sizes. Magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book even gave instruction on how to create your own hair jewelry rather than sending locks to a shop to be made up. Hair was made into everything from rings and bracelets to watch chains and earrings, and was worn by both men and women depending on the style.
It’s often hard to tell the difference between hair jewelry made to commemorate death and that made to celebrate love and friendship. The most telling sign is the use of other decorative elements. Pearls and black stones and enamel could be used on mourning items, while brightly colored stones and elaborate settings were usually reserved for either friendship or love tokens, but are sometimes seen on mourning pieces made during the later stages of mourning that were less strict.
Often jewelry worn during mourning had multiple functions: to memorialize the departed, to remind the living of impending death, and to show the social rank of the mourner. Hair jewelry met all three needs. If hair was sent to a hair jeweler to be elaborately plaited, it showed the wealth of the mourner. Interpreted as a symbol of life, it reminded the wearer both of her own mortality and the immortality of the spirit. However, hair most typically was used as a memorial to the deceased, and might continue to serve this purpose even after the official mourning period had ended. A mourning brooch with a braid of hair might be worn years after the individual’s death, continuing to serve as a poignant reminder of a lost loved one.
To find out more about the hair jewelry in the CHS collection, visit the Waterman Research Center at the Connecticut Historical Society, located at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford. For more information, go to chs.org.