Hair Work vs. Mourning JewelryHair work jewelry isn't like mourning jewelry. People in mourning often either displayed or wore a lock of a loved one's hair that had been placed in a piece of jewelry, usually covered with a glass front, such as a brooch or locket.
In hair work, longer lengths of hair are used, and they are nearly always collected from hairbrushes and (sometimes) cut from the living, not a person who had passed away.
Preparing the Hair for JewelryTo prepare hair, it is first boiled in a soda and water solution, and then sorted by length, clustering it into small groups of hairs suitable for the jewelry being made. Godey's Lady's Book and other magazines published free patterns, and making the jewelry became popular during drawing room gatherings, with women working at round tables with weighted hairs dangling from table edges (see the illustration, right). Once it is prepped, hair can be converted into a seemingly endless number of 'chains' and other designs.
Beginners often learned the craft by working with horse hair, which is coarser and much easier to handle than human hair.
Finishing the WorkWhen pieces were finished, they were taken to a jeweler who could link shorter sections together and add fittings. Some of the fittings were quite elaborate, and included gemstones and intricate metal work.
The boom in hair work prompted new businesses to open, providing services to those who wanted to own the jewelry, but had no interest in making it themselves. A customer could choose from an ever-expanding number of products, including breast pins, rings, necklaces, bracelets, the always-popular fob chain and more.
Hair merchants traveled extensively, buying hair from women and girls, or more often trading for it by providing hair combs or other accessories. Some of the harvested hair was used for jewelry, but much of it was incorporated into other items to enhance or replace hair.
Hair work isn't popular today, but we do have a way to wear jewelry that's directly connected to a lost loved one -- diamonds and other gemstones can be created from human ashes.
To learn more about the process of making jewelry from hair, read one or more of the following books:
- The Art of Hair Work, published in 1867, is available free online. The book contains numerous patterns for hair work and is an interesting read, if only to gain a better understanding of the craft.
- Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment, is usually available from book resellers. Compare Prices
- Collectors Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry is pricey, but interesting. Compare Prices
- Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America is more affordable. Compare Prices
- Related: Mourning Art & Jewelry, Compare Prices
- Related: Victorian Jewelry: Unexplored Treasures, Compare Prices