A Matter of Taste

Posted on the 31st August 2011

As a personal token of love it’s rather romantic, as a memento of the deceased some might call it morbid, as an elaborately woven piece of jewellery – crimped and curled to within an inch of its life – it borders on just plain weird. Yet for the Victorians, all three of the above mentioned fashions were embraced with a fervour and resulted in so-called ‘hairworkers’ popping up all over the place (including a manufacturer whose business was just down the road from us in Clerkenwell…). A number of factors lay behind the Victorians’ penchant for hair jewellery. While a simple lock of hair has, for thousands of years, been regarded as an instant keepsake, the sudden boom in the market for intricately woven and plaited locks of hair during the 19th Century was fuelled by the Victorians’ aesthetic for fussy details and Queen Victoria’s hugely influential preoccupation with mourning. Although much Victorian hair work was set in lockets and brooches, designs quickly became more extravagant and before long, entire pieces of jewellery were being woven from hair. Human hair merchants dealt in more than 50 tonnes of the stuff each year and whilst some of this hair was taken from the loved ones of those commissioning the work, much of it was brought in from convents on the continent. Often, this imported hair was pre-worked and exchanged with the donated hair without the commissioner’s knowledge. Those Victorians were sneaky like that. Today, there is little market for hair work, old or new. Most antique lockets that pass through our doors have had the hair removed and I’ve never been presented with a hair-necklace, bracelet or earrings. If I was, I’m not sure whether I’d be repulsed or intrigued. Probably both.