The history of Victorian hair jewelry is a fascinating chapter, particularly as it pertains to the United States and post-Civil War culture. Hair was fashioned into thick braids used for necklaces, bracelets and even brooches. Particularly in the United States, hair jewelry became the choice work for opportunist wig makers who suddenly found themselves out of a job when European style powdered wigs went out of fashion in the 19th century.
Given the natural chemicals present in hair follicles, these jewelry pieces have the potential to last hundreds of years without breaking down, discoloring or breaking. This means that human hair is practical to work with and lasts from one generation to another, which gives it the potential to live on through family heirlooms. Many of the existing pieces in museums have, in fact, been donated by families, and contain the hair of family patriarchs and matriarchs from the distant past.
Hair was typically sourced from the poor and sold to artisans, who would mount the hair in gold and decorate them with precious stones or pearls. These were sold in specialty and high fashion stores. Far more popular, however, were the pieces uniquely commissioned; individuals who wanted jewelry made from the hair of a loved one or a celebrity would order pieces to be specially made. This sentimentality permeated the culture of hair jewelry and Victorian society in general. Young children who passed away were often memorialized through hair brooches or pendants. The same is true for dear family friends. Through jewelry, they would continue to be remembered. While we no longer use hair in professional jewelry, memorial pieces like pendants continue to maintain popularity.
While this practice of working with human hair directly may seem strange or distasteful in modern society, this was once the pinnacle of high fashion and fine jewelry trends in the United States, and in many parts of Europe. This chapter of jewelry and high fashion history continues to attract interest. In 1994, a Victorian hair arts society was formed for enthusiasts to identify historical preserved pieces, discuss the craft, and share tips on creating modern pieces of wearable hair art. The intricacy with which hair must be woven and treated in order to preserve, shape and mount it according to historical accuracy is complex. The documentation of this craft and the experiential practice continues to shed new light on our understanding of Victorian culture.