I was inspired to write this post after a recent tweet by Lindsey Fitzharris – if you don’t follow her, you really should. Lindsey – a medical historian – was discussing glass eyes in the 19th century, and tweeted an example of a glass eye that had been set into a mourning ring on the death of its owner. A bit (a lot) creepy, right? By today’s standards, oh hell yes! But by Victorian standards….yeah OK still creepy.
Glass eyes aside, sentimental jewellery, with its central theme of love and remembrance, was a hugely important part of Victorian life. It was worn to signify love and betrothal and even friendship. It was also worn to mourn the dead – death was a frequent occurrence and strict rules and customs surrounded mourning. The tastes and actions of the much loved Queen Victoria would often be emulated by her loyal subjects, so for example as she only wore jet for a period following the death of her husband Albert, so would they following the death of theirs. Or items that looked similar to jet, such as onyx or black enamel.
“Whose hair I wear, I loved most dear.”
The making and wearing of hair jewellery began long before Victoria’s reign, but its popularity surged following the presentation of a brooch to Victoria age 16, which included a lock of her mother’s hair. Then following her engagement to Albert a few years later, Victoria was never without a lock of his hair on her person. In the UK, in France and even the USA, hair became an incredibly important part of the jewellery worn to commemorate engagements, marriages and deaths and could be found in brooches, rings, pendants and earrings.
If you’ve ever visited a jewellery auction or an antique fair, chances are you’ve spotted a piece of hair jewellery. Or something with a glass locket case that would have at some point held hair. It all seems a bit unusual to us nowadays but in the 19th century, carrying your loved one’s hair was as common place as we see carrying a photograph in our wallet. Times have changed, but the sentiment has not.
But what about teeth, you ask? Every parent will know the importance of milk teeth. How many of us have the tiny gnashers of our precious first born tucked away in a box somewhere in the house? Or we did anyway, before we lost the box. Well the Victorians went further than the little box tucked away in a drawer, and occasionally, they set these milk teeth into jewellery instead.
Much like hair, setting teeth into jewellery was not new and examples can be found in older Georgian jewellery. However, it is possible that the actions of the royal Victorian household again influenced jewellery tastes more significantly. When the Princess Royal lost her first tooth in 1847, it was set by Albert in a gold and enamel thistle brooch and presented to Queen Victoria.
But royalty aside, did the normal folk of the day join in with this human ivory sentimentalism? It seems they did, though the lack of surviving jewellery in comparison to that made with hair suggests milk teeth or ‘mother’s jewellery’ enjoyed no where near the same level of popularity. Nonetheless, it was a thing, and occasionally these pieces of curio come up for sale, be they rings, pins, brooches, earrings or pendants.
UK Auction house Woolley and Wallis recently auctioned a near enough entire set of children’s top front teeth studded with small diamonds in a gold ring. With an estimate of £200-£300, this piece of half dentistry half jewellery sold for £3,400 + buyer’s premium! Bizarre, interesting, incredible – and clearly a niche market with interest.
For the most budget conscious collector of curio, I happened upon this lovely ring from a jeweller in Berlin (still for sale at the date of writing). Turn of the century Art Nouveau, so right at the end of Victoria’s reign though more than likely European in origin, it features three milk teeth in a floral design, set with a small central diamond. Personally I love it. Would I wear it? I am not sure. I mean, wearing your own kid’s teeth is one thing but someone elses? Hmm. But if oddities from the past is your bag, this would be a fab addition to your collection.
References & Credits
Victorian Jewellery – Ginny Redington Dawes & Corinne Davidov
Two Nerdy History Girls – Queen Victoria’s Baby Tooth Brooch
Museum Crush – Things Queen Victoria Collected