In Focus: How the Victorians wove beautiful jewellery from the hair of their deceased loved ones

Treasured by the Victorians in remembrance of their lost loved ones, hair jewellery is beautiful, intricate and intriguing, as Charlotte Cory discovers in a visit to the British Museum.

If your first reaction to the notion of jewellery made from human hair is a squeamish shudder, read on.

Hair jewellery is often associated with the Victorian cult of extensive and public mourning. Little plaits made from the hair of the dead, neatly woven and placed into black-rimmed lockets, brooches and rings were usually inscribed with initials, Obit (Latin for died) and the date of death.

There was a whole industry turning out these standardised mourning pieces, but a new exhibition at the British Museum is set to show that there’s more to 19th-century hair jewellery than this routine commemoration of the dear departed.

An extensive collection of exquisite jewellery made from hair was recently donated to the museum by Ann Louise Luthi, author of the authoritative Sentimental Jewellery (The Shire Book). It celebrates a whole artform and culture that has entirely dis-appeared, but which — as Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, curators of this exhibition, argue — is essential to a proper understanding of the 19th century.

Choice items from this collection will be shown in rooms containing the etchings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, an altogether appropriate pairing, as Victoria was intensely keen on hair jewellery — and Albert, indeed, is generally credited with having introduced the fad from Germany.

Victorian hair jewellery at the British Museum

Mourning jewellery was, in fact, only a small part of the business of using hair in jewellery. Curiously, very little of the hair found in such jewellery actually came from the person commemorated, for the simple reason that hair must be cut from the living, otherwise it’s too brittle to be intricately woven, precisely cut or twisted.

Occasionally, people would pay for memorial pieces to be made after their death and locks would be left with solicitors for this purpose (Queen Victoria certainly lodged her own hair and that of Albert and their children with her jewellers, to guarantee its authenticity). However, the hair in a mourning ring or locket often had nothing to do with the person memorialised.

Hair was often chosen as a material more for the fact that it was such a fine, yet strong and eminently pliable material to work with, rather than for any reason relating to the head it came from. You can make things out of human hair that would be impossible in gold or silver and the Victorians, who were such connoisseurs of skilled craftsmanship — encouraged in no small measure by the Great Exhibition of 1851 — appreciated this.

Hair could be worked on a pillow, rather like lace-making, or woven into a hollow tube (in a similar manner to the French knitting we were taught in primary school, twisting wool around pins nailed into the top of a cotton reel). It was then stiffened with glue or lacquer, before being formed into elaborate bows, rosettes, anchors, acorns, crosses, chains and beads of all shapes, as well as long drops.

Victorian hair jewellery at the British Museum

Jewellers vied with each other to create ever more intricate designs, incorporating patterns of different coloured hair and frequently adding tiny gold and gilt ornaments or gems.

The work was hollow and wondrously shaped, rather like three-dimensional lace, and, very significantly, it was beautifully light to wear. A pair of remarkable, three-tier chandelier earrings in the British Museum collection could only have been made from hair as, despite their size, they’re light enough not to drag painfully on the earlobes.

With jewellery of this type, the value of the item was not so much its intrinsic worth, in terms of precious metal and gem-stones, but the virtuoso display of technique with which it had been made. As such, pieces crafted from hair were more subtle and interesting adornments than other more conventional jewellery, making them ideal for the intimate, meaningful exchange of gifts among family, friends and lovers that the Victorians were keen on.

The mystery novels of Wilkie Collins have several plots that turn on the identification of locks of hair in bracelets. Charlotte M. Yonge has pious heroines who display their inner worth by preferring jewellery made from their dead parents’ or deceased siblings’ hair to diamonds and gold.

The hair-jewellery industry evolved out of the wig-making industry, which had been prevalent for centuries, using many of the same techniques to collect, weave and mould hair into shape.

Obviously, people didn’t expect to have wigs made of their own hair and thought nothing of wearing long chains made from other people’s. Young girls growing their hair as long as possible and then selling it was an established way of acquiring a dowry.

Victorian hair jewellery at the British Museum

Celebrated artists in hair on the Continent flocked to London to take advantage of the new interest following the successful contribution to the Great Exhibition by the French royal jeweller Lemonnier et Cie of Paris. When the Emperor and Empress of France visited London in 1855, Queen Victoria presented Eugénie with a bracelet of her own hair and noted in her diary that the recipient was moved to tears by the gift.

One of the most skilled exponents of braided hairwork in London was Swiss-born Antoni Forrer of Hanover Street, ‘Artist in Hair and Jewellery. By appointment to The Queen’.

In the collection is a box, complete with its bracelet, with instructions to the recipient written inside the lid by Forrer himself: ‘Madame, Please always to UNDO the clasp before putting on the bracelet.’ The natural elasticity of hair clearly tempted wearers to overstretch lazily the pieces when putting them on, much to the exasperation of the makers, who were presumably called upon to repair the damage.

Victorian hair jewellery at the British Museum

It wasn’t only human hair that was used to make jewellery. One of the finest items in the collection is a set of bright-red earrings, necklace and matching bracelet made in Ireland from dyed horse hair. Perhaps it was created for the owner of a beloved horse — it looks as if it was never worn.

Hair jewellery is obviously fragile, so really splendid specimens in perfect condition, such as those in this collection, are rare survivors of a lost but important industry.

Many museums across the world hold a few examples, but, as a result of this donation, the British Museum can now boast the most comprehensive collection in the world. More fascinating than squeamish, it is well worth seeing.

‘Woven in hair: a recent gift of hairwork jewellery’ is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until September 1 — www.britishmuseum.org