The spooky Halloween spirit becomes omnipresent and almost unavoidable as soon as the clock strikes midnight on October 1. While most choose to adorn their homes with pumpkins and playful skeletons, many people and businesses across the country decide to go in a more ghoulish direction by curating grim crafts. One of the people who stays in the Halloween mindset year-round is New York City jewelry store owner Erica Weiner.
Erica Weiner’s self-titled store is tucked away on the corner of Spring and Elizabeth Street in the chic NoLita neighborhood, and also has another location in Brooklyn. Each neighborhood is known for its plethora of boutiques and designer flagship stores, but Weiner dares to venture into what few modern jewelry curators have ever done: collecting and selling Victorian mourning jewelry that contains the hair of deceased relatives.
Sitting down to browse Weiner’s catalog of unique findings, I was both entranced and repulsed at the macabre concept of putting a dead person’s hair around my neck. Don’t be freaked out though — the story behind the seemingly gruesome and morbid jewelry actually has an interesting history that gives us insight into how Victorians viewed death and the mourning process.
While it seems overly macabre in present day, making and wearing mourning jewelry was a popular trend during the Victorian era. While we may view hair today as a dirty addition in unwanted places, such as finding unwanted hair on the floor or in a sandwich, the Victorians had a different attitude about the matter; they viewed hair as a sentimental object. Since hair does not decompose and stays in the same condition if it is taken care of properly, they viewed it as the perfect medium to memorialize their loved ones after they passed away.
Most Victorian mourning jewelry, including most of the pieces collected by Weiner, are made of a sleek, black, fossilized coal called jet. Other popular materials include white enamel, onyx, fossilized oak from bogs, dark tortoise shell and black enamel. Weiner’s collection of pieces are typically made out of jet, enamel, gold, glass and, of course, hair.
The “Georgian Hair and Jet Mourning Ring for Jonathan Faddick” piece featured on the Erica Weiner shop website has a rose gold band and a face covered with small black gems. A small glass rectangle on the front reveals the woven hair that is featured front and center. Rather than looking like a tangled mess, the hair is elegantly woven to look like a thick braid. An engraving on the ring reads the name of the deceased and their death date of January 4, 1819.
The addition of hair became popular as the concept of wearing mourning jewelry expanded from the upper classes to those who sought more affordable options, as they tried to make their own versions by using the cheap material. The combination of expensive metals with human hair creates a stark contrast in the pieces that makes the jewelry stand out from traditional necklaces. The conspicuous placement and delicate weaving of the hair results in a unique centerpiece that still manages to blend harmoniously with the other materials; this helps explain its three centuries of popularity.
The remembrance trend lasted through the 19th century, as icons such as Queen Victoria continued to preserve the memories of loved ones through intricately-made necklaces and rings. Another reason why the jewelry became so popular during this era was that it was a subtle symbol to indicate that a woman was mourning. Typically, pairing the necklace with conservative dress would allow a Victorian woman to be treated with greater respect.
A wide array of mourning jewelry is still able to be found and purchased today at stores such as Erica Weiner’s, or at antique shows. This is a nod to how many people had these pieces during the Victorian era and the tradition’s popularity. Although hair in necklaces and other everyday objects is unlikely to become popular again anytime soon, the remaining pieces serve as mementos of the past.