Hair jewellery

Hair jewellery

Hair work, or jewellery made of human hair, was in fashion during most of the 19th century and a few decades into the 20th. It disappeared when short skirts and the bob became stylish around 1925.

There are several reasons why hair work was unbelievably popular for over a century. Human hair does not decay with the passing of time as most other materials. It has chemical qualities that cause it to last for hundreds, yes, thousands, of years. Hair has often played a part in myths and legends. The most well known is the story of Samson who was a member of a military sect, the Nazarites who believed that long hair was the source of strength. For the story look up Judges 13-16. 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 likely cause was the fact that many hair artists and wigmakers had too little employment when the powdered wigs often worn my noblemen of the 17th and 18th centuries went out of date.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. At the start 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. Among the many famous persons who owned and cherished hair jewellery we can name Napoleon, Admiral Nelson, Queen Victoria and her large family, Christina Nilsson and Jenny Lind.

Everywhere in Europe there were workshops where these fashionable items were made. Buyers of human hair travelled about in the countryside and purchased hair from poor peasants, or tricked women into having their hair cut in exchange for some scarf, ribbon or pretty trinket. 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.

At Mora, Sweden, the peasants were dependent on migrant work or crafts to support the rural economy since the farms were small and poor. We don’t know exactly how it all began, but the women at Våmhus, a village in Mora, learned how do make hair work. It was otherwise a well guarded secret of the wigmakers guild. Perhaps a hair buyer or some migrant worker gave them a hint, for in 1824 there were 16 young women from Våmhus who went to Finland, most likely to obtain a wage at a workshop producing hair work. The peasants were controlled by the officials and were not allowed to be away at work for more than 6 months. The following year there were 20 young women who travelled again, now to Germany, Norway and England as well as Finland. In 1826 there were 24 girls who travelled to the above named countries as well as Denmark. Official records do not state what occupation the women worked at but a few years later Våmhus women often travelled as hair workers to most countries in northern Europe. (The means of travel in those days was mainly by foot!) The women might be just teenagers at the first journey and some of them met young men abroad, married and did not return. Others had their fiancés at home in Våmhus and were out earning a sum of money that would help them to set up a household of their own. Later in life if the crops failed, they could again travel as hair workers to make ends meet and avoid famine.

These brave young women 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.

Styles change and it finally became too expensive to travel abroad. Still at the beginning of the 20th century there could be 20 or so hair workers from Våmhus in the large towns of Scandinavia, Stockholm, Oslo, etc. But finally the aging women just stayed at home doing an occasional piece for someone by mail order. In 1950 there still might come brown envelopes with hair, addressed to the hair worker, Våmhus, since the mail carrier knew where they all lived.

Hair work had died out more than a half century earlier all around Europe, and at Våmhus 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. Våmhus is most likely the only place in the world where 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. All through the summer there are daily showings of hair work at Våmhus Gammelgård (local museum) and the hair workers can be contacted for showings, lectures on the history of hair work at Våmhus or for making orders of one’s own hair.

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