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What is Hairwork?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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Hairwork is jewelry made from hair, classically human hair. The term is also used to refer to the process of making such jewelry. Hair jewelry is most closely associated with the Victorian era, when hairwork was immensely popular with people in a wide range of social classes, and a broad assortment of antique Victorian pieces can be seen on display in museums and private collections. The hairwork tradition endures to this day, however, although fewer artisans practice hairwork.

The practice of using hair as a keepsake is ancient. In Ancient Greece and Rome, people traded locks of hair as a token of affection, and sometimes the hair was wound around or otherwise integrated into jewelry to secure it. Hair of the dead might be kept as a remembrance, and warriors in some cultures took the plaits of their enemies after victorious battles, sometimes with the scalps attached. It is perhaps not surprising that hair keepsakes were eventually used to create jewelry, given the symbolic associations with hair in many cultures.

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Hairwork jewelry dating to the 17th century can be found in many regions of Europe, and the practice really took off in the 18th century. A typical piece of hairwork includes a solid base around which the hair is woven or plaited. Hair may also be glued to a surface, ground and used as pigment, enclosed behind glass, or twisted into elaborate shapes. Many pieces of hairwork jewelry depict natural scenes, such as sprays of flowers or landscapes, and hairwork may include hair from multiple individuals.

This type of jewelry can take a range of forms, including bracelets, brooches, rings, and earrings. Many pieces of hairwork also include precious metals or stones, especially when commissioned by wealthy individuals, and hairwork mourning jewelry was sometimes handed out as a status symbol at prominent society funerals. Women also historically commissioned hairwork pieces to give to lovers, family members, and fiancées as a personal memento.

Artisans who make hairwork can work with samples provided by clients, or they can create pieces made with hair on hand. People who want mourning or memory jewelry generally want to use hair from the head of the person being commemorated, so that the jewelry creates a personal connection. Individuals who simply like the look of hairwork may be satisfied with pieces made from the hair of strangers, and many artisans keep stock on hand which can be sold on request, or used as inspiration for custom designs.

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