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5 Things You Didn’t Know about Hairwork and Portrait Miniatures

by Keith Gollar


blog , hairworks , Portrait Miniatures

View over 100 intricate portrait miniatures and pieces of hair jewelry in Mementos of Affection: Ornamental Hairwork in Jewelry and Portrait Miniatures, on view now–November 2018 in G213. The installation is a unique collection of eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century brooches, pendants, rings and necklaces that are either made of, or incorporate, human hair. Read on to learn 5 interesting facts about the artworks featured in this rotation. Free admission.


Image: Auguste-Jean-Jacques Hervieu (1794–1858), France (worked in United States),Young Man with the Initials J. L. F. (verso), circa 1830, opalescent glass, hair, seed pearls, gold wire, cobalt glass, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fleischmann III, 2004.257

Human hair jewelry dates back to the seventeenth century…

Jewelry made with human hair dates to the seventeenth century when it was created as a remembrance of both a loved one and mortality. By the eighteenth century hairwork was used to make decorative backs to portrait miniatures worn as pendants. As an art form, European and American hairwork reached its peak in the 1860s.



Image: William John Thomson (1771–1845), England, Army Officer (verso), 1801, hair and gold on opalescent glass (verso), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fleischmann in memory of Julius Fleischmann, 1991.369

Hair does not decay…

Because hair does not decay, it was a way to immortalize loved ones back in the day. These objects were emblems of love that acted as personal records of family and friends, both living and deceased.



Image: Attributed to German School, A Young Man with the Initials M. A. B. (verso) circa 1800, watercolor on ivory (recto); chopped hair on ivory (verso) Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fleischmann in memory of Julius Fleischmann, 1991.331

Not all hairwork kept locks of hair intact…

Hair painting was also popular and easy to accomplish by the amateur hair worker in the home. The hair was finely chopped, or sometimes ground, then mixed with glue and painted into designs.



Image: United States, Necklace, 1860s hair, gold, glass, Gift of family of Mrs. W.T. Lenoir and Mrs. J.S. Skinner, 1967.246

Anchor themed jewelry isn’t something new…

While an anchor incorporated into modern jewelry is largely for aesthetic purposes, this same symbol in the Victorian period had a deeper meaning: hope. An anchor holds a ship in place, is steadfast, and was sometimes a symbol of Christ.



Image: Henry Edridge (1769–1821) England, A Gentleman with the Initials C. L. (verso) circa 1795, watercolor on ivory (recto), cobalt glass, opalescent glass, hair, gold wire, and seed pearls (verso) Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fleischmann in memory of Julius Fleischmann, 1990.1683

Wheat isn’t just wheat, and pearls aren’t just pearls…

Symbolically, wheat has many meanings, but its use here most likely signifies love and charity. Pearls were called the stone of truth, faith and love and were often used to imply purity.