A few weeks ago, I described an antique mourning brooch which had been created with table-worked hair. Today, I wanted to talk about another hair technique called ‘palette- work’. This technique used hair to create patterns and pictures, using glue to hold it together as well as thin ribbons and gold wire thread. Seed pearls, representing tears, were often included in the pictures. The technique was called ‘palette work’ because it was often worked on an artist’s palette at home.

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Antique 9ct pocket watch style pendant with hair insert (in Navette on Ruby Lane)

Simple examples of palette-worked hair were curls of hair, tied with a thin cord of some sort, placed inside a brooch, pendant or ring. To create the curls, the hair was washed, dried and then covered with a glue wash. Then it was cut and curled into the desired shape and affixed into the frame with cornstarch. Often these frames were sold as kits, in gold, gold-filled or gilt.  The hair used might be from one person or, as in the pendant above, from two or more people.

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Basketweave hair

Basketweave and plaited hair was also made using the palette and could produce some striking designs and patterns, particularly if different colours of hair were used. The example above shows a basketweave with hair that is a dark brown but with grey threads as well.

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Victorian mourning pendant and guard chain

There is no doubt that the most common form of palette work is the curl, and three curls grouped together were called the Prince of Wales feathers. Some were shaped like a fleur de lis. More ambitious designs involved ears of barley, feathers, flowers, bouquets and wreaths.

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Victorian gilt and enamel brooch with hair insert (in NavetteJewellery on Etsy)

It is important to note that not all antique jewellery made of or containing hair was for mourning purposes. Much of it was for sentimental purposes, such as for an engagement or marriage, or the birth of children.