Was hair work jewelry, Victorian or even earlier, always representative of mourning? The quick answer, as you might suspect, is "no."
According to hair work historian Mary Brett, who wrote Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing, & Customs (Schiffer Books), only about half the hair work jewelry dating to the Victorian era was made to memorialize a loved one. That’s good information, no doubt. But how do you tell if the hair work jewelry you inherited or found at your favorite flea market was actually made as a mourning piece, and what difference does it make?
Distinguishing Hair Work Jewelry Meant for Mourning
When identifying Victorian jewelry, especially mourning pieces, it’s always important to keep in mind that this was a very sentimental era and most jewelry is rife with symbolism that goes beyond a mere motif. Examining the materials, decorative elements, and an engraving on a piece will help you to decide whether it was originally made in remembrance of a loved one that had passed on or it was given as a gift to someone special that was very much alive.
The use of hair in jewelry, including watch chains for men, always meant something but that meaning wasn’t always mourning. Sometimes it would be used to commemorate an engagement or another special occasion. For instance, a lady might give an intricately woven watch chain made with her own hair to her betrothed. It might have their initials engraved on metal findings or another inscription on a fob to indicate it wasn’t used for mourning.
But there were many motifs used in this type of adornment that did relate to death and would have been worn during the later stages of mourning after all black jewelry was no longer required. The Victorian representation of these mourning motifs is more subtle, but once you learn to recognize them many will stand out immediately.
For instance, jewelry made in the late 1700s and early 1800s might have an urn in the motif, according to mourning jewelry expert Hayden Peters who curates the Art of Mourning website (see link below). It can be very subtle, like one carved into the stone of a ring, or more elaborately crafted with crushed hair and hand painted on ivory with other mourning symbols such as a palm or willow tree.
Floral motifs incorporated in mourning pieces included Lily of the Valley sprays and, for obvious reasons, Forget-me-nots. These can be rather unassuming in a design but were definitely included in many mourning jewelry pieces. In hair work jewelry they may be made by combining other elements such as seed pearls or small bits of natural elements to make up a college under glass. Pendant necklaces often incorporate these types of designs.
When it comes to pearls, however, it’s important to remember that they were used extensively in mourning jewelry as a representation of saltwater tears, since they came from the sea. But they were also used to represent beauty, so you will find them incorporated in hair work items intended for use during weddings as well. Always look at the sum of the parts as well as the individual components when discerning mourning pieces.
Why Bother Determining the Meaning of Hair Work?
From a personal standpoint, if you’re lucky enough to have a piece passed from generation to generation, it’s really nice to know whether or not an heirloom was used to celebrate a happy occasion or to memorialize a sad one. Recording history as accurately as possible can be an important part of preserving family history and adding value to a memento.
But for collectors, it’s also imperative because mourning pieces are generally worth more in the secondary marketplace than hair work meant for other occasions. In fact, some sellers deem every piece of hair work jewelry they offer for sale as a mourning piece for this reason whether it’s appropriate or not.
If you’re buying, you’ll most definitely want to know what you’re getting. Doing research on the symbolism and types of inscriptions found on these items will go a long way to help with this task. Sellers will want to do the same to make sure they aren’t marketing an item for too little and to make sure they represent their wares ethically.