In the 18th and 19th centuries, hairwork jewellery, that is, jewellery incorporating a person’s hair, was popular. Hairwork was sentimental, allowing the recipient of the piece to remember a loved one, alive or dead. Hair was used in two ways. It might be incorporated into a piece of jewellery, as in a lock of hair placed under a glazed compartment in a ring, brooch or pendant either in the front or the back of the piece, or it might be turned into the jewellery item itself as a watch chain or a braided earrings.
In some instances, hair was ground up, mixed with glue and painted onto designs in mourning pendants or brooches.
There were two main techniques used for hair jewellery, apart from the hair painting mentioned above – palette working and table working. Palette-work involved creating pictures by gluing hair onto a surface. Used in particular for miniature paintings, common from the 1760s to the 1820s, the hair was used to form scenes of tombstones, mourning widows, willow trees and so on. Sometimes a lock of hair might be enclosed.
Palette-work also included the creation of hair feathers, known as Prince of Wales feathers. The hair was flattened and then wrapped around a heated curling iron to create feathery curls, then flattened. The curls were then mounted in brooches.
Table-worked hair involved braiding hair into different woven patterns and shapes.
Hairwork became less popular as the 19th century progressed and by the 1880s its production was declining, finally ceasing in the 1920s. One reason for its decline was that hairwork jewellery had become more commercial and was no longer only using the hair of a known individual. It began to be sold as jewellery in its own right and so there was demand for human hair in large quantities. In ‘Little Women’, Jo March sells her hair for $25.00 in the mid 1860s.