1.- Intro: hair symbolism and ornamental use through history
The origin of ornamental hair jewelry goes back to the beginning of times. Hair is part of our body, but it is changeable and detachable. It can be altered according to taste and fashion, it can be covered or revealed, given or revered. Its symbolic power is undeniable and a biblical figure such as Samson is a good example.
Hair, considered to be a symbol of life in many cultures, has been associated with death and mourning quite often:
- Pharaohs exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love where portrayed in Egyptian tombs.
- Indian Mexican women kept hair combings in a special jar that would be buried with their bodies so that the soul would not become tired looking for missing parts, and delay its passage to the other world.
There is no exact date that can be pinpointed as to when and where hair art began, but it is known to have flourished in the Victorian times and can be traced back to the 12th century.
2.- The flourishing of hair art: the Victorian era
Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials, and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with the angelic nature–may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.”
The Godey’s Lady’s Book of May 1855
Hair-work has early commercial roots in Scandinavian countries. 19th century was a time of famine in Sweden because of the population boom in the early 1800’s, scarcity of farm land, and many cold summers. Life was difficult for small farmers in rural areas and emigration to the new world was not unusual; people were in a desperate need to find new ways to make their living and many farmers turned to crafts on a part-time basis in order to survive and keep their farms.
In the small village of Våmhus in the region of Dalecarlia, central Sweden, some women revived the almost forgotten handicraft of making bijouterie with hair. Hair plaiting became a necessity for the town’s survival and soon this small town of 1800 had as many as 300 hair workers. Instantly recognizable because of their traditional dress, the “hårkullor” travelled around Europe, selling their wares, training apprentices, and sending money back to sustain their small villages. The trips were normally for a season but it could take up to two years. Some of them became even famous, like Jek Mait in London who delivered her work to the Queen Victoria and the English aristocracy. We need to keep in mind that gold and silver weren’t readily available throughout Europe during the time of the Napoleonic wars. Little by little the rest of Europe adopted the craft, expanding the uses of hair for large-scale landscapes “paintings” and floral designs.
Hair jewelry became very popular by the 1850’s and hair was an expensive commodity with a variety of commercial uses. In the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition, a full line of hair jewelry was displayed, as well as a full tea set made entirely of hair. But hair jewelry was not only common in Europe, it caught on in the United States too. Civil War soldiers often left a lock at home to be made into jewelry if they met unfortunate fates. The use of mourning jewelry increased with the outbreak of the war and this coincided with the black jewelry used in England in sympathy with Queen Victoria’s widowhood.
In the second half of the 19th century hairwork became a drawing room pastime and the work was done on a round table. Almost all intrincated pieces of hairwork were made around special molds made by local wood turners and most pieces of jewelry required long hair (sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and thus easier for a beginner). When the work was finished and while still around the mold, it was taken off, boiled for 15 minutes, dried and removed from the mold. It was then ready to be mounted by a professional jeweler.
3.- ‘Memento mori’
Let me just add some details about Victorian mourning jewelry.
For the Victorians death was a common and accepted part of everyday life. Because of high mortality rates, death and mourning became a way of life for survivors: houses were filled with mementos and after the loved one had actually passed, women were expected to follow a complex code of mourning that lasted for two and a half years.
The material most associated with Victorian mourning is jet, as Queen Victoria popularized this ‘black amber’ after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Jet is a variety of fossilized coal and it has an appearance similar to black glass.
In first mourning jet jewelry was the only ornamentation women were allowed, by second and half mourning jewelry made from gutta-percha, gold, pinchbeck, and human hair were incorporated into the wardrobe.
Favorite symbols used in mourning jewellery included forget-me-nots, flowers, hearts, crosses, and ivy leaves, replacing the earlier more macabre symbols of skulls, coffins and gravestones.
4.- Hair art collections
Home of the largest collection of human hair trinkets in Europe, the Bangsbo Museum displays the wares of the “hårkullor” in a permanent exhibit. With reference to the USA, Layla’s Hair Musseum in Minnesota claims to be the only hair museum in the world boasting over 500 hair wreaths and over 2000 pieces of jewelry made of human hair.
All images: A. Bernhard & Co. Catalogue, 1870.
Main sources: ‘A. Bernhard & Co. Catalogue, 1870’, ‘Early Victorian Masonic Mourning Pin with Braided Hair’, ‘Hair jewelry exhibit at the Bangsbo Museum’, ‘Hårkullor – The Hair-ladies’, ‘Victorian hair jewelry’.