Hair jewelry – braided bracelets, twisted watch chains, curled necklaces and the like – is pretty "ick"-inducing to us today. Modernity thinks of hair as a dead thing – on our bodies and off of it. But traditionally, one's hair was conceived of as an undying part of oneself, to live on as a remembrance long after the physical body had decayed. For example, Civil War soldiers often left a lock at home to be made into jewelry if they met unfortunate fates.
But the tradition of hair jewelry as we think of it today was revived in the Scandinavian countries out of dire necessity in the 19th century. In many Swedish villages, harvests had been particularly bad for the previous years and this, coupled with a depression, put men and women on the verge of starvation and bankruptcy. Faced with these circumstances, women revived the nearly-archaic tradition of bijouterie, or handcrafted jewelry, using human hair.
In the case of their rediscovered craft, time was on their side. Throughout Europe during the time of the Napoleonic wars, gold and silver weren't readily available. Hair jewelry was the perfect alternative. These country women, eventually called “hårkullor,” or hair ladies, started making all varieties of jewelry, including brooches and rings, with the customer's hair and the name of his or her loved one wrapped into it.
Instantly recognizable because of their traditional dress, the “hårkullor” travelled around Europe, selling their wares, training apprentices, and sending money back to sustain their small villages. Soon, the rest of Europe adopted the craft, expanding the uses of hair for large-scale landscape "paintings" and floral designs. Even Queen Victoria got in on the trend.
Home of the largest collection of human hair trinkets in Europe, the Bangsbo Museum displays the wares of the "hårkullor" in a permanent exhibit. Made creepier and probably mustier by the centuries that have passed since their creation, the museum's repository includes hair watch chains, usually made for men out of their wives' hair, and bracelets, necklaces and rings worn by women made from their husband's clipped locks. Wreaths and plaques made from the hair of dead relatives, amongst other oddities like human hair mittens, are also on display.
Worth a trip for the original Christmas gift ideas!