Dead Serious – Part Two: Memento Jewellery

1800-1820 Mourning miniature, an eye portrait with a tear and clouds, with pearls to symbolise more tears.

1800-1820 Mourning miniature, an eye portrait with a tear and clouds, with pearls to symbolise more tears.

Mourning jewellery was big business during the Victorian era. It wasn’t only jet jewellery that was all the craze, there was a whole range of different types of memento jewellery. These items were full of symbolism, which makes them perfect for writers to use as metaphors and analogies.

Miniature painted on ivory of a child's eye in the clouds. Most likely a mourning brooch.

Miniature painted on ivory of a child’s eye in the clouds. Most likely a mourning brooch.

Eye Portrait Jewellery: This type of memento wasn’t limited to the Victorian era, but it was a popular trend. The eye surrounded with pearls (symbolising tears), the eye surrounded by clouds (in Heaven), or an eye with a single tear, all pointed to the eye belonging to someone who was deceased. When this jewellery was worn as a memento of a secret love, those details were not included. These miniatures were usually framed in lockets or brooches, but they could be incorporated into bracelets as well. These are potent little packets of significance – a great treasure to a writer wanting to layer a characterization with extra meaning.

Mourning locket, made of gold, hair work, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England,circa 1826. In the  Collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Mourning locket, made of gold, hair work, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller; Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the Collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Hair Bracelet

Woven Hair Bracelet

Hair Jewellery: This is something that seems very strange to modern eyes, but in the Vicotrian era, hair jewellery was all the rage. Women kept special containers on their dressing tables to collect their hair. People gave each other lockets of hair as mementoes. When a person died, lockets of hair were distributed to their friends and family as keepsakes. Often this hair was used to create all types of accessories. I can’t help but wonder if woven hair bracelets were itchy. If you have read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, you will see the evidence of hair as keepsakes; Beth wants to cut her hair and give it away when she thought she was dying, and the mother treasures a Christmas gift of a brooch made from hair from every member of her family.

Human hair has a huge significance in witchcraft and fairy tales; it nearly has as much cultural significance as blood. In Victorian era narratives, Jo from Little Women sells her hair, as does Della from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and they sacrifice their ‘beauty’ for love. Long hair was much admired as a feminine trait, so the cutting of hair was considered quite a big deal. It doesn’t take much for a writer to see that the cutting of hair can also be considered a metaphor for cutting links or chains.

Long hair

Jewellery is highly personal. When you are ‘cooking up’ a character, particularly a female character (though Victorian men did wear jewellery), you should try to visualise what sort of jewellery she is wearing. Why is she wearing it? It might simply be for show, but it is more interesting if the jewellery is worn for sentimental reasons. It can tell you a lot about that character, straight up. That ring was a gift from her beloved grandmother, just before the old woman died; when she feels discouraged, she rubs it for luck and strength. For a male character, that tiepin was his first purchase with his first pay cheque, as a promise to himself to try for better things.

Keepsakes are just that … so what do they mean? That is the real question you need to answer for your audience.



Filed under Bling, Characterization, History, Jewellery, Mementos, Mourning, Steampunk

6 responses to “Dead Serious – Part Two: Memento Jewellery

  1. It’s interesting to think about what other uses these jewellery items could have in a steampunk or fantasy setting. Could the locket be a reminder of a loved one and a key to their clockwork mausoleum? Perhaps hair really does have those witching properties, creating new forms of blackmail and black markets in hair -suddenly barbers become quite powerful!

    • Michael Pryor uses hair in just that fashion in the second book of his ‘The Extraordinaires’ series, as part of a plot to subjugate the human race. I nearly used his book as an example in the article! Great minds think alike.

      Steampunk jewellery is usually both functional and decorative. I own a cannon-ring, and I wear two miniature wrenches as earrings. So your concept of a locket/key would fit right into the Aesthetic and the genre.

  2. I had a professor in grad school who analyzed snippets of hair from 19th century hair wreaths. The amount of heavy metals present was amazing. Probably not surprising considering plumbing was made of lead, mercury compounds were used as drugs, and arsenic was a common insecticide.

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