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Remembering mourning jewelry
Two different colored plaits of hair in a mourning brooch depicting the loss of two loved ones. (Provided by Effingham Museum) - photo by Photo submitted

The earliest examples of mourning jewelry came from the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe. Rings and brooches in black or white with heads or skulls were popular. In the 17th and 18th century it was a status symbol of the wealthy to present mourning rings to friends and family.

The jewelry reached its height in England after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria went into a prolonged period of mourning including elaborate jewelry and she was copied by the people.

Etiquette of the times demanded long prolonged periods of mourning including dress and jewelry. Enamel was popular early on and later jet. Jet was a hard coal-like substance formed when waterlogged driftwood sunk to the river floor and was buried in mud. Heat, pressure and chemical action transformed it into a compact fragile black substance. It was easy for jewelers to carve and was perfect for rings, lockets, brooches and pendants. Today it is illegal to mine jet — jet is scarce and the jewelry is now precious and highly collectible.

Due to the shortage of jet, many imitations came about from glass, stone, horn and even vulcanite (an American sulphurized rubber). Gutta percha, a natural material similar to jet, was used, too. It is black to brownish hard rubberized material made from the sap of a Malaysian tree and was introduced in Paris in 1842.

Much more commonly used in America was human hair incorporated into jewelry. It was used as a souvenir to remember the dead. The jewelry became a status symbol, especially during the Victorian era.

Most women kept containers or “hair receivers” where all of the hair from their hairbrushes and combs were kept to be used in this manner. Hairwork as a craft had early roots in Scandinavia where the cold temperatures led to the supplementation of the income by the handcrafts of the winter season. Poor young women would take journeys to sell their handmade wares. They made beautifully detailed landscapes and floral designs of human hair which were framed as well as worn in jewelry. In the 18th century some beading and pearls were added to designs. Sometimes horse hair may have been used.

Young ladies were often offered wonderful trinkets in exchange for their hair. The hair was prepared and plaited over wire and bent to make the delicate designs. Although the designs looked like a spray of flowers, they were usually called wreaths. Wool or waxes sometimes were incorporated in the displays.

The hair art was most popular in America from 1850 through 1900.

During the Civil War when the soldiers left for war they left a lock of hair with their loved ones. The hair was made into mourning jewelry or placed in a glass covered brooch or locket at the death of a soldier. These were usually gold or black and sometimes engraved with “In Memory Of” and the initials or names of the deceased in the more wealthy communities. An example is shown in one of the photos.

Hairwork was done sitting or standing usually by women on a round table about 32 inches tall. The hair had to be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes. It was divided into lengths and strands containing 20 to 30 hairs. A full sized bracelet required hair about two feet long. Horsehair was coarser and beginners often worked with it.

The work was done over a tiny mold (or frame) which was attached to a hole in the center of the round table. The hair was wound on bobbins with weights attached to the braidwork to keep it straight and at the correct level.

When finished and still in the mold, the completed design was boiled again for 15 minutes. It was then dried, removed from the mold and sent to a jeweler to mount. The less wealthy did the work themselves often utilizing pins or lockets which could be purchased already made.

The fashion of mourning jewelry ended after the death of Queen Victoria and the onset of the First World War.

Mourning jewelry is now highly collectible and there are organizations of collectors. Examples are found daily on eBay for purchase. Much information can be found on Web sites including where this writer found information.

According to Reminisce Magazine, young ladies used locks of plaited hair wound in circles to decorate memory books. These 1850s autograph type books bore a hand penned snippet of poetry or wisdom, an autograph and a circle of the young lady’s plaited hair.

These locks of hair woven in jewelry were dear to the wearer and a fashionable ornament of the Victorian era. The examples should be preserved to honor the bygone times.

Take a look at the examples of hair jewelry and the floral display (as shown in the accompanying photographs) when you tour the Georgia Salzburger Society Museum at New Ebenezer, which is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 3-5 p.m.

This article was compiled by Susan Exley. If you have questions, photographs or comments to contribute, please contact her at 754-6681 or email