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A Look into the New-York Historical Society’s Victorian Hair Jewelry Exhibition

The New-York Historical Society celebrates a morbid (but beautiful) Victorian fad with Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry.

By Annette Maxon with Claire Butwinick

Mourning ring containing lock of Alexander Hamilton's hair presented to Nathaniel Pendleton by Elizabeth Hamilton, 1805 Gold, hair Gift of Mr. B. Pendleton Rogers, 1961.5a

Shrines and mausoleums are lavish ways to remember passed loved ones,

but the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry will showcase an unusual tribute that one-upps them all: human hair jewelry. Opening December 20, the exhibition looks at mourning jewelry, a sartorial craze that dominated Victorian-era fashion.

Epitomized by Queen Victoria’s public appearances as a widow, on which she often sported jewelry incorporating the dark locks of the late Prince Albert, the use of hair to embellish jewelry and commemorate loved ones became abidingly popular. Throughout the 19th century, explains Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts at the society, “wearing a lock of hair became more acceptable and fashionable.”

Although modern audiences might find the tradition of wearing another person’s hair strange or macabre, the pieces on display show a high level of craftsmanship, attention to detail, and pure creativity. From an intricate, bronze-colored bracelet accented with braided brown hair and crowned with small diamonds to delicate gold rings topped with glass-encased strands of hair, Life Cut Short overturns expectations by showcasing the artistry and care put into each piece.

“I am hoping audiences will be captivated by something that might sound off putting,” Schmidt Bach says. “[Life Cut Short] dives into the history behind the pieces. The jewelry tells small stories that contribute to something greater than themselves and paint a picture of New York’s genealogy.”

Image on homepage: John Ramage (ca. 1748–1802); Sample of hair jewelry designs used by miniaturist, 1777−95; Ivory, watercolor, hair, leather, textiles; Gift of an anonymous donor, 1947.461


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