Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! When thinking of what I wanted to post for this Valentine’s Day, I immediately thought of lockets. (Actually my sister suggested that I write a post about lockets quite a while ago, and I hadn’t gotten around to doing it yet, so here it is now!) Lockets are one of those very sentimental and romantic pieces of jewellery, and I can’t think of any better piece of fashion history to delve into on Valentine’s Day, than the history of lockets!
When we think of lockets, we instantly think of romance, and sweethearts separated by circumstance with only a small token left behind as a remembrance of each other. This is very true that lockets are a sentimental piece of jewellery, but their origins are actually not as romantic as you might think and sweethearts were not the first to own and exchange lockets.
A locket is by definition “a small case usually of precious metal that has space for a memento and that is worn typically suspended from a chain or necklace / a thin chain necklace with a gold or silver disk which opens to reveal a picture of loved one, or lock of hair”. Although lockets are typically worn as a necklace, there are also many examples of locket rings and locket brooches.
No one really knows when lockets were invented, but it is thought that they evolved from the amulets and pendants of ancient times and the Middle Ages. Pendants had been popular for a long time before lockets appeared on the scene, and many pendants had cameos on them or other special engravings and symbols (some of which were supposed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the wearer). The first lockets often served purposes far removed from “love” and “sentimentality”. Some of the earliest ones held herbs or medicine for the wearer, some held perfume to help mask odours arising from less-than-thorough hygiene and some (owned by people of questionable morals) even held poison! You never know when you might just need a handy supply of poison to get rid of someone, I guess. . .
Lockets did quickly evolve into mementos though, and one of the earliest known examples of a locket with a picture in it, is the locket ring of Queen Elizabeth I. This ring, dating from 1575, was very precious to her, (my preciousssss!) and contained a portrait of herself on one side and her mother Anne Boleyn on the other. She is said to have never taken it off; it was removed only after she died.
In 1649, many supporters of Charles I wore lockets containing his portrait or locks of his hair after his execution, as a sign of mourning for him. These lockets were worn secretly and, though not romantic in nature, were nevertheless cherished pieces to the wearers. During this century, lockets became a way to remember someone special who had died, and often contained a lock of their hair, or a miniature portrait. The lockets of the 17th century were enclosed, and the hair or portrait was concealed inside the piece, which gave the lockets a sense of secrecy and privacy, as only the wearer knew what was inside. At this time, lockets were extremely expensive and often made of precious metals and gems; thus they were worn mainly by the wealthy.
During the Victorian era, lockets became extremely popular and turned into the piece of jewellery we recognize today. There are several reasons the locket became so widespread during this time period. The first reason is that Queen Victoria, who was both extremely admired and copied by the people of the time, had two lockets of her own. One was a locket bracelet given to her by her husband which contained locks of hair from each of their children and the other was a very special locket with a portrait of Albert, which Victoria wore after her dear husband’s death. The Victorians were a very sentimental society, so seeing their Queen so publicly wearing a sign of mourning and love for her husband set off a new “trend” for mourning jewellery. Lockets of this time period contained locks of hair, miniature portraits, and even tiny portraits of a person’s eye. Lockets of previous eras had been worn with the lock of hair concealed, but during the Victorian era, lockets of glass also became popular, so the hair could be seen inside without needing to be opened, and the hair was often plaited or woven to create a design, rather than being hidden away. There was also a rather macabre practice of creating jewellery directly out of the hair of the deceased. (Google it, if you dare!) Am I the only one who finds this a little. . . disturbing? I am totally fine with carrying a lock of hair from the one you love, but why must you create a piece of jewellery that is literally made out of the hair itself??? Anyways, moving right along. . .
Though lockets were often worn as a sign of mourning and remembrance during this time period, we also see them become a token of romantic love. Up until this point in history, lockets were a symbol of love, just not a symbol of only romantic love. The Victorians were a culture obsessed with love and courtship, and a locket was a lovely symbol of promise between lovers. In the USA lockets, sadly, rose in popularity during the Civil War, when soldiers gave them to their sweethearts as a memento in case they didn’t return home.
In previous eras, lockets, as with all jewellery, were very expensive and were owned only by the wealthy, but during the Victorian era they became quite affordable. Because of the Industrial Revolution, and advances in technology and manufacturing, jewellery became easier to manufacture, thus dropping the price to a level that many could afford. Also, with the advent of photography, lockets could now be worn without a lock of hair inside them or a commissioned miniature portrait. Photography was affordable for the masses, and it soon became popular for lovers to wear lockets, with a picture of each person on either side of the locket.
During WWI and WWII, lockets again jumped in popularity as many of the soldiers who fought in the war gave lockets with their pictures to their wives and girlfriends, as soldiers had done years before them. Many of the lockets at this time were very cheaply made, which made them affordable to everyone. They were available everywhere- even being sold at post offices!
After the wars, lockets diminished in popularity overall, though many people of course do still wear them. Today they are seen as a rather traditional type of jewellery, and are often given as gifts for special occasions. I’ve also seen in recent years that glass lockets have come back into style again, though often they don’t contain pictures of loved ones, and instead hold pressed flowers, charms or other pretty tokens. There has also been a resurgence of interest in vintage lockets- and you can find lots of antique ones for sale online and in shops.
Nowadays people don’t wear only lockets as sentimental pieces; instead any piece of jewellery can be a special one- such as a charm bracelet with meaningful and personal charms, or even a simple necklace or ring that was given by someone special. I also think that the reason lockets are not as popular today as they once were, is probably because we are not as “separated” from our loved ones as people of the past were. Before the era of technology, people didn’t have photographs or other ways to keep each other close, so sentimental jewellery pieces like lockets (cameos would be another example) became a common way for loved ones to remember each other. Nowadays, in our era of technology, many of us have an abundance of photos of our loved ones and we also have the “connectedness” that the internet gives us, which was simply not possible before. Still, there is something so special about the thought of wearing a cherished piece close to your heart, isn’t there?
I own this silver oval locket, which was given to me when I was 11 or 12, by my parents. Somewhere along the way it got a dent in the front of it- I’ve no idea how or where that happened, but it is still completely wearable, and though I don’t wear it often, I do love it still.
My sister owns two lockets. The heart shaped one was my mom’s locket which she received as a graduation gift. The silver oval one is one that my mom gave to her.
Even though lockets are not as popular as they once were, I would still say that they hold a rather prominent and special place in history and amongst jewellery collections today, and there is nothing more fitting to wear on Valentine’s Day than a locket or other special piece of jewellery. Do you have a cherished locket or own any other “sentimental” pieces of jewellery? Did you know the history of lockets, or was this new to you- as much of it was to me?
This is not an exhaustive history, of course, so if you want to find out more about the history of lockets here are some of the sources I used:
Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion (book)