Perhaps no other piece of jewelry carries more mystery and allure than an antique locket, a charm with a locking compartment. Only the wearer knows what's secreted inside, but traditionally it's a memento so treasured the owner wants it near at all times. It could be a valuable, a token of love, or a memorial for a deceased loved one.

Lockets come in various shapes—mostly commonly circles, ovals, and hearts—and are attached to rings, brooches, necklaces, and charm bracelets. In ancient times, a locket could carry medicines or herbs needed for spells. The contents of a locket might be intended to ward off evil spirits. Those practicing a darker form of magic might carry poison to use on enemies. Lockets have also been used to carry baby teeth, lip balm, or a cotton ball doused with perfume, designed to mask natural body odors.

Around the 16th century, "memento mori," which is Latin for "be mindful of death," became more and more popular, particularly in the form of jewelry worn to memorialize a lost family member or lover. Up until recent times and the miracles of modern, life was much more fleeting and fragile, so death was a much more pressing reality. Lockets grew to be one of the most important devices in mourning jewelry. While most jewelry at the time was worn to flaunt wealth and status, lockets were often hidden, worn close to the heart.

In the politically tumultuous Georgian period in England between 1714 and 1837, memorial jewelry often featured funeral scenes painted on ivory, or miniature portraits of loved ones on pendants and brooches. The Georgians were also deeply romantic, favoring lover's eye lockets, which contained a painting of an eye, as well as heart-shaped love-token lockets featuring messages coded in gemstones. Many of these lockets could only be unlocked with a small key and had affectionate notes inscribed on them.

Under Queen Victoria's reign, these sentimental charms became even more popular, as artists became masters of painting portraits in miniature for sterling silver lockets. Lovers gave each other heart-shaped lockets adorned with gems, pearls, and monograms. Engaged couples would exchange miniatures with compartments containing a lock of hair. Even Victoria herself wore a heavy bracelet with a miniature of her husband, Prince Albert, in the center.

When the Queen lost both her mother and her beloved Albert in 1961, she went into a permanent state of mourning. She believed that any widow would feel as aggrieved as she did and remarriage was not plausible. From then on, deaths in the Royal Family were frequently and rigidly mourned, and this strict observance of mourning spread across the country.

Lockets created for mourning jewelry were made out of dark materials like ebony, jet—a shiny black coal-like material formed out of driftwood—or gutta percha, a dark rubber mater...

The Victorians were particularly obsessed with the hair belonging to a belated loved one. They would make entire suites of jewelry out of this hair, which might include a necklace with a pendant cross, a brooch shaped like a lover's knot, earrings, and a miniature backed with hair, all mounted in gold. Family and friends would receive gold locket rings containing plaited hair of the deceased.

In the 1860s, the United States, too, seemed overwhelmed with death, as the Civil War casualties mounted, and newborns suffered a high mortality rate. Lockets holding a photograph of the child's dead body and a snippet of the baby's hair comforted bereaved parents. A soldier heading to the war would cut off a piece of his hair, and give it to his family or wife for future mourning jewelry pieces. These Victorian-era lockets are easy to date, as many bear inscriptions that detail exactly who they memorialize and when they passed.

In the 20th century, lockets worn as memorials or token of affection are more likely to contain a photograph rather than a lock of hair. However, in the 1990s, the concept of cremation jewelry extended to lockets, in which a part of a loved one's ashes could be carried at all times.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Fine Georgian Garnet & Seed Pearl Locket Gold RingVictorian 10k Gold Persian Turquoise Locket Not Scrap - 7.3 GramsLarge Victorian 'imo' Whitby Jet LocketVintage Art Deco Silver Gilt & Enamel Egyptian Revival Moses Basket & Baby CharmFine Victorian 22k Gold Seed Pearl Mourning Locket RingVintage Beautiful 9ct Gold Large Locket & Chain Somers & Eccles 10g101 Large Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Locket With Ivy Design & PictureAntique Victorian Scottish Agate Bracelet! Locket 1800's Just Gorgeous Antique 18k Gold French .70 Ctw Old Emerald Cut Diamond Sardonyx Fob LocketVictorian Scottish Moss Agate And Vulcanite LocketAntique Victorian Locket Very Unique Heavy Thick Gold Color Chain See PhotosAntique Pinchbeck Lockets Lot Of 5Silver Old Belcher Chain Solid Long 24 Inches Suit Old LocketLarge Victorian Silver Locket 1876Vintage Sterling Silver LocketLarge Antique Victorian 9ct Rolled Gold LocketAntique 9ct Rose Gold LocketMagnificent Antique Victorian Art Nouveau Gold Filled Locket W Maiden/goddessAntique Victorian 9ct Rolled Gold Heart Double Sided LocketAntique Art Nouveau 15ct Gold And Limogee Mourning LocketAntique Victorian 9ct Gold Back, Front & Enamel Locket Horse Shoes WeddingUnusual Design Victorian Gold Mourning Brooch Pin Locket Antique No Reserve Antique Gold Vintage Lockets & Ring,Vintage 925 Sterling Silver Jeweled Jesus Is The Reason Mini Rosary LocketLot Of 5 .925 Sterling Silver Mix Of Amethyst Gemstone Lockets Pendants #p4046Silver Locket X 4 1 With A ChainAntique Victorian Huge Sterling Silver Aesthetic LocketAntique Edwardian 9ct Gold Back And Front LocketFinest Antique Victorian Gold Locket/memorial Photograph Brooch Victorian Gold Locket Back Mourning Brooch.Vintage Solid Silver Locket, Birmingham 1981, By Ejc.Antique 9ct Gold Double Sided Locket 1911101 Large Antique Revival Sterling Silver Vintage Locket Full HallmarksAntique Victorian Locket, Gold Gilt W/painting On PorcelianAntique Victorian Edw. Locket 14k Gold Filled 18 In Chain Skm Company 1837-1910Vintage Sterling Silver Wwii World War 2 Us Navy Puffy Heart Charm Locket PinVictorian 9ct. Gold Back And Front Locket With Seed Pearls And RubiesBeautiful Enamel Locket W/guilloche Enamel - Picture Of Wwii Era Soldier Inside Lovely Large Vintage Sterling Silver Engraved Photo Locket Hm 1971Victorian Gold Mourning Locket With Real Hair.Antique Art Nouveau 9ct Gold Back And Front LocketVintage 9ct Rose Gold Engraved Swivel Watch Fob Holding Locket Scrap Repair101 Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Locket ( Original Picture Inside)Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Locket. Aei Amity, Eternity, Infinity. OpensCa.1901 Baby Photo Mourning Locket (engraved)Antique Victorian Mourning Locket Intricate Gutta Percha Civil War Soldier PhotoArt Deco Vintage Sterling Silver Heavy Floral Heart Locket Charm BraceletAntique Anchor Locket Hair Victorian 1800s Love Token Mourning?Vintage Sterling Silver Square Book Shaped And Shell Cameo Locket Lovely Victorian / Edwardian Double Glass Floral Edged Gold Plated Locket 26mmVictorian Scottish Banded Agate Cornelian LocketVictorian Silver Locket Brooch, Mourning WearVintage1920's Sterling Silver Locket W/monogram And PictureEstate Antique Victorian Flt Odd Fellows 14kt Gf Enamel Watch Chain & Locket FobLarge Vintage Gold Tone LocketAntique 1920's Sterling Silver Art Deco Guilloche Enamel Photo LocketGold Locket Forever FriendsAntique Edwardian Mourning Gold Fill Photo Locket Watch Fob Pendant SunflowersVintage 9ct Locket Heart Shaped Silver Pendants Butterscotch Amber Toi Et Moi Antique Victorian Yellow Metal Locket Opens Glass Inner