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Cut, Washed, and Worn

A Short History of Hair Jewelry | In English / 日本語版


Georgian Mourning Ring, 1772, sepia ink, hair, crystal, 18-karat gold, white enamel, 16 x 14.5 mm, photo: Erie Basin
Georgian Mourning Ring, 1772, sepia ink, hair, crystal, 18-karat gold, white enamel, 16 x 14.5 mm, photo: Erie Basin

Does the sentimentality behind antique hair jewelry simply fade away over time? While the original owners of these objects are deceased and we typically do not know whom the locks of hair belonged to, with some historical context perhaps we can reconnect with some of those feelings. These pieces were initially worn to commemorate a loved one who had passed, but also served as a bond between close relations.

First seen in the 16th century, memento mori jewelry featured imagery such as skulls, coffins, and skeletons that served as an ominous warning of death’s inevitability. In the 17th century, these motifs reappeared in mourning jewelry, but in a less morbid context—as affectionate reminders of cherished relationships. Hair became a popular material for this type of jewelry, and it was initially kept private: It was often hidden under metal, crystal, or glass. Wearing a lock of another individual’s hair inspired an intimate bond that promised a reunion in the afterlife.

Rings were frequently worn as a memorial to the deceased, and they often included hair in their design. This 1772 Georgian Mourning Ring depicts an ancient graveyard scene encircled by weeping willow trees. Sepia ink was used on ivory to render the imagery, and brown hair was crushed into tiny bits and attached with adhesive to the surface. At this time, hair was properly sanitized, and then manipulated into flat images using tools such as tweezers, knives, and curling irons.

In the early 19th century, hair became more of a design focal point, rather than simply remaining hidden behind glass. A lock of hair could function as a mourning piece, a token of love or friendship, or to signify a successful business relationship. In the 1830s, hair began to be shaped into three-dimensional forms using methods similar to those employed in lacemaking. It was pulled downward by spools into a hole in the center of a table, where it was woven or plaited into patterns. Hollow motifs were also realized by wrapping hair around a brass or wooden core, and then boiling it in water. Metal fittings were then added, which helped transform the hair into a piece of jewelry.

Hair as a component of jewelry reached the height of its popularity in 1861, after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, passed away. She mourned his death until the day she died, and even attempted to communicate with him through séances. At least eight pieces of jewelry were commissioned by Victoria that incorporated Albert’s hair. Victoria’s extended display of mourning launched the mid-Victorian or Grand Period, and set the stage for many pieces of art, clothing, and jewelry through about 1880.

An 1880s Hair Work Lyre Pendant demonstrates an interest in reviving archeological designs by using a neoclassical motif—that of a Greek lyre. The pendant renders this musical instrument using three strings of twisted gold wire and a convex body made up of woven brown hair. Since the instrument is hollow, it is particularly delicate and lightweight.

The obsession with death and the afterlife that Victorians engaged in ended with the Great War. Their relationship with death changed, as it was often moved into sterile hospitals—it had been common for Victorians to die at home. Many families did not even receive their loved one’s body to bury, and no longer wished to retain physical reminders of the deceased. Life was bleak, and belief in the afterlife dwindled along with the exchange of locks of hair.

A few contemporary jewelers, such as Melanie Bilenker, have revived the art of hair jewelry. She frequently uses her own hair, various metals, and resin to create self-portraits on jewelry. Each design stems from a photograph that records an intimate moment in her daily routine. Antique hair jewelry was first seen as a reminder of the deceased, and was then adopted for more lighthearted design purposes—but in all cases an affectionate bond with the owner was retained. Meanwhile, the connection Bilenker encourages with wearers is voyeuristic rather than sentimental, which marks a more self-expressive phase in the use of hair in jewelry.

Melanie Bilenker, Telephone, 2007, brooch, gold, sterling silver, ebony, resin, pigment, hair, 67 x 55 x 10 mm, photo: Kevin Sprague

Index Image: sumos, Scissors in use


















  • Kristie Rosen

    Kristie Rosen is a New York-based jewelry historian and designer who completed her master of arts in the history of decorative arts and design at Parsons. She specialized in jewelry from the 19th and 20th centuries.

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