Hair jewellery

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Hair work, or jewelry made of human hair, was in fashion during most of the 19th century and a few decades into the 20th. It disappeared around 1925.

A 19th-century hair brooch, in the collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

There are several reasons why hair work was popular for over a century. Human hair does not decay with the passing of time as many other materials. It has chemical qualities that cause it to last for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Hair has often played a part in myths and legends. Memorial jewellery was popular in the 16th century. In a Swedish book of proverbs one can read that “rings and bracelets of hair increase love” (Vadstena stads tankebok). In Denmark at Rosensborg’s palace there is a bracelet of precious metal with a simple braided lock of hair, a gift from King Christian IV (1577-1648) to his queen. During the following century it was common with memorial jewellery of hair, for example, rings commemorating the executed King Charles I of England that circulated among his faithful supporters.

Another possible cause of the popularity was the fact that many hair artists and wig makers had too little employment when the powdered wigs often worn my noblemen of the 17th and 18th centuries went out of date. Into an age of romance and sentiment hair jewellery gave these craftsmen a good income. Early hair jewellery was usually made in cooperation with goldsmiths producing beautiful and expensive creations of hair mounted in gold and perhaps decorated with pearls or precious stones. These were naturally very expensive. Some famous people owning hair jewellery include Napoleon, Admiral Nelson, Queen Victoria and her large family, Christina Nilsson and Jenny Lind.

Hair workshops where these fashionable items were made existed across Europe. Buyers of human hair travelled about in the countryside and purchased hair from poor peasants, sometimes in exchange for a scarf, ribbon or other small luxury object. There was still a need for great amounts of hair for braids and switches that women wanted to purchase for their coiffeurs, even though most jewellery was made from a certain person’s, or a dear family member’s hair.

Many women of Mora, Sweden, became experienced in hair work and made it possible for other groups than the very wealthy to afford hair jewellery. They had no money to buy expensive findings so they mounted the jewellery with wooden beads that they cleverly covered over with hair.

Hair work had died out more than a half century earlier all around Europe, and at Våmhus (where much hair work was created) the locals began to realize what a treasure the knowledge of the trade was. The local historical society introduced classes in hair work and new generations of women learned the art. In Våmhus hair art has been done continuously for almost 200 years.

In 1994 the Hairworkers Society was founded by the most active hair workers. Together they have done many shows, exhibits and projects.