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.