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Katy Kelleher | Longreads | June 2020 | 19 minutes (4,853 words)
In The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher lays bare the dark underbellies of the objects and substances we adorn ourselves with.
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He wasn’t even two years old; a tiny thing, really, hardly even a person. Alfred was the ninth son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, their fourteenth child. But his numerous siblings didn’t make Alfred any less beloved. Portraits of the boy show him as rosy-cheeked and handsome, with light eyes, a pronounced Cupid’s bow, and soft folds of neck fat. His royal parents loved him dearly, and when he died on the 20th of August, 1782, Queen Charlotte was said to have “cried vastly.” The king, too, was bereft. Later, when he went mad, he reportedly held conversations with his lost little boy and his brother, Octavius, who’d also died as a child.
Often, upon losing a family member, 18th century mourners would send the dead to their graves only after giving them one last haircut. They would harvest their locks to create elaborate weavings. Sometimes, the hair would be fashioned into floral wreaths. Sometimes, it would be made into jewelry. Frequently, the hair was plaited and pressed into lockets, which were then worn close to the heart. Prince Alfred didn’t have enough hair on his small blonde head for a weaving, but a tress did make it into a locket — a single soft curl. It sits behind glass, in a gold and enamel frame that displays the dates of his birth and death. The other side of the locket, a delicate piece of jewelry shaped like an urn, is decorated with seed pearls and amethysts. It is now part of the Royal Collection Trust. “Due to his age, there was no official mourning period for Alfred,” notes scholar and collector Hayden Peters at The Art of Mourning. “But his death came at a time of the mourning industry being a necessary part of fashion and a self-sustaining one in its own right.”
When it comes to mourning jewelry, there’s no piece quite like the locket. Whether urn, round, oval, heart, or coffin-shaped, it’s an item that telegraphs absence. I love is the message the locket sends. Or perhaps more accurately, I have loved. Even today, we understand that lockets are meant to show allegiance to someone who is not present, whether the loss is through death or just the general isolation of modern life. A grandmother might wear a locket with pictures of her far-away grandchildren. One half of a long-distance couple might keep a locket with a bit of their partner’s hair. I know a woman who wears a locket with a picture of her dead sister; she plays with it sometimes when she’s drifting in thought.
It’s a beautiful piece, but it’s impossible for me to divorce the beauty of the silver pendant from its significance. Once you know someone’s greatest wound, it’s hard to look at them the same way you did before. And once you know an object’s terrible provenance, it’s difficult to covet it without feeling at least a little guilty, a little angry at your own sinful schadenfreude.
Before the ritualization of mourning in the Victorian era, wearable containers were a discrete way to keep an item close, usually something that had significant personal meaning or an intimate purpose. These pendants, brooches, or rings were visible and sometimes highly ornate, but their contents weren’t typically meant for public consumption. As emotions have slowly become more public (and more performative), so too have lockets gone from being highly private objects to functioning as a means of displaying big sentiment in a socially acceptable way. Like generational trauma tap dancing through DNA strands, jewelry transports sentiment from one person to the next. It holds, in its tiny little chains and clasps, evidence of our most devastating emotions, from fear to grief to existential despair. It makes those things small, palatable, pretty. But in the shrinking of emotion, we run the risk of losing touch with the expansive and all-consuming reality of grief. We risk losing the opportunity to come together as a community, to hold not jewelry, but each other.
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For as long as we’ve been aware of our bodies, we’ve adorned them. Adam and Eve donned fig leaves to cover their nakedness, and thus clothing was born. But we just as easily could have covered ourselves with other objects, for other reasons. It’s possible we wore furs to stay warm. It’s also possible we wore them to look cool. (We’ve come a long way, sartorially, from the hides-and-leaves days.)
If this conflates clothing and jewelry, it’s because the line between the two is actually quite thin. Clothing is typically made of fabric, leather, or fur, while jewelry is made of metal. Yet some jewelry is made of leather and fabric, and some clothing is made from iron and gold, so the difference isn’t about materials. It’s about function: Clothing covers and protects the body, jewelry adorns and enhances it. “Jewelry has been a constantly evolving product of its time for centuries, and looking at the styles of a particular age is a great way to discover where people’s heads were,” says jewelry historian Monica McLaughlin. “Over time, jewelry has served as a form of talisman or a personal item of reflection, as a way to support one’s country in a war effort, or as an outlet for people — rich or poor — to memorialize their loved ones or proclaim their latest enthusiasms, It really is a tiny, exquisite little window into history.”
The word locket, most likely derived from the Frankish word loc or the Norse lok, meaning “lock” or “bolt,” first appeared in the 17th century, but the concept of a diminutive, wearable container dates back much further. The earliest examples of container jewelry — a category that includes lockets, rings, bracelets, broaches, and even chatelaines, a kind of metal belt that allowed the wearer to carry keys, scissors, good luck charms, and a variety of small containers attached to one central decorative piece — come from the Middle East and India, though it’s proven difficult to tell exactly when or where the locket was born. Until recently, jewelry wasn’t as rigorously studied as other art forms, says Emily Stoehrer, jewelry curator for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “Maybe it’s the materials,” she muses. Or maybe it has something to do with the newly gendered nature of jewelry (diamonds weren’t always a girl’s best friend, if you get my drift).
The Museum of Fine Art has built up a substantial jewelry collection over the past century. One of the MFA’s most popular and most written-about items is the Hathor-headed crystal pendant, a piece that has been dated to 743-712 B.C.E. It’s also the earliest example of container jewelry that I’ve found, though I strongly doubt that it was the first of its kind. Just over two inches tall and an inch-and-a-quarter wide, it consists of a hollow crystal ball topped with a tiny gold sculpture of a serene, long-haired Hathor. The goddess wears a headdress featuring a pair of cow horns and a sun disc. The woman’s face looks composed, kind, and brave — fitting, since she’s the deity of beautification, fertility, and a protector of women. Hathor, according to Geraldine Pinch, author of Egyptian Mythology, was “the golden goddess who helped women to give birth, the dead to be reborn, and the cosmos to be renewed.” Later, during the Greco-Roman period, she became known as a moon deity, and the goddess of “all precious metals, gemstones, and materials that shared the radiant qualities of celestial bodies.”
This pendant was found in the tomb of a queen who lived in Nubia. We don’t know what the crystal originally contained; the MFA website says it “probably contained substances believed to be magical.” Stoehrer doesn’t have much more to add, saying that it is “believed to have had a papyrus scroll inside it with magical writing that would have protected the wearer.” The mystery, she says, is part of the appeal. “People love the story of what might have been in it, what it might have said.”
According to Stoeher, wearable prayers and early receptacle jewelry were created around the globe, but were particularly popular in “non-western” countries; historians have found evidence that people in ancient India and Tibet carried magical wardings on their bodies, pieces of prayers and words for good luck. Christians eventually began to wear small containers holding devotional objects a bit later, sometime in the Middle Ages. But some devoted followers of Christ weren’t satisfied with writing down a few words of worship and calling it a day. Instead, they hoarded pieces of people, bits of bone and hair and blood.
Relics are one of the grisliest forms of Christian worship. Although the belief in relics, defined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the “physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact,” has been part of the religion since its beginning, the trade in relics truly began to pick up steam during the reign of Charlemagne. According to historian Trevor Rowley, the body of a saint could act as a stairway to heaven, providing a “spiritual link between life and death, between man and God.” Relics were typically stored in decorative cases called reliquaries. Made from ivory, metal, gemstones, and gold, reliquaries had places of honor in churches, monasteries, cathedrals, and castles. The most revered relics were objects that Jesus or Mary had touched or worn (including purported pieces of the True Cross, his Crown of Thorns, or scraps of woven camel-hair believed to have been worn by Mary as a belt) but there are plenty of relics that belonged to lesser figures, like saints. Many of these aren’t lifeless objects like shoes or hats, but bits of hands and arms and hearts and legs. (There are also secular relics, like three of Galileo’s fingers, on display at the Galileo Museum in Florence, or the supposed 13-inch-long alleged pickled penis of Rasputin housed at the Museum of Erotica in St. Petersburg, though these objects aren’t worshiped in quite the same way.) Since there are thousands of recognized saints in Christianity and it’s hard to tell one disembodied leg or desiccated kidney from another, there are a lot of possible relics out there to be unearthed, sold, and displayed.
Fascinating as these grim objects may be, they’re still less strange than the reliquaries once worn by medieval Christians. It’s one thing to inter a body in a church and allow visitors to pray over it on a Sunday, and quite another to take a fragment of finger bone, stick it in a tiny silver case, and wear it around your neck, but that’s exactly what people did. One personal reliquary housed at the British Museum, dated to 1340, is made from gold, amethyst, rock crystal, and enamel. Inside the colorful locket nestles a single long thorn believed to come from the holy crown. Many reliquaries held splinters of bone, though later analysis often found that the bone was unlikely to be from a saint (and sometimes wasn’t even from a human). Merchants sold reliquary pendants stuffed with teeth, hair, blood-stained fragments of cloth, drips of tomb oil, and other supposedly holy items. The practice continues to this day, but Peak Relic was during the Romanesque period, which ended around 1200 CE.
As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, container jewelry was used more and more often for mundane (and hygienic) purposes. There are many examples of people keeping scented materials in little wearable containers in attempts to mask their natural smells. Known as pomanders, from the French pomme d’ambre (apple of ambergris), these perfume balls were packed with musk oil, ambergris, and other less costly plant-based fragrances. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has ten in their permanent collection, including an incense ball from 13th or 14th century Syria and a skull-shaped pomander from 17th century England. There are intricate silver many-chambered balls and basket-shaped pendants that would have once housed fragrances like neroli, civet musk, ambergris, rose oil, and myrrh, a shell-shaped gold pendant that still has “traces of a red residue” inside its chambers, and even a pomander bead that was part of a devotional necklace or rosary and contained pictures of three female saints hidden behind spring mechanisms.
If you didn’t want to carry around perfume, you could pack your pomander with an opium-laced mixture known as “Venice Treacle” in late medieval and early Renaissance England. (Opium was believed to be effective against the plague, so its usage was medicinal as well as recreational.) If you were really ambitious, maybe you’d wear a poison ring. It would be an easy way to defeat political rivals: Pour them a goblet of wine, flick the locking mechanism, and let the poison drop from your hand into their cup. Voilà, no more pesky Venetian cardinal or aggressive Flemish countess. According to legend, multiple members of the infamous Borgia family wore poisoned rings filled with cantarella, a custom concoction made by 16th century Italian merchants from either the juices of rotting pig entrails sprinkled with arsenic or the froth that accumulates on a poisoned pig’s mouth after it dies from arsenic poisoning — fables differ in the details.
Pomanders and poison rings weren’t truly that far from reliquaries in their design or their purpose. All of these things — saints’ bones, prayer snippets, rancid pig poison, sweet-smelling whale bile — were precious and private. They all afforded the wearer some sort of protection. Protection against the plague, protection against evil, protection against embarrassment. Even pomanders were about protection; it was often believed that illness spread through bad smells. According to the miasma theory, scents were a matter of life and death. A whiff of “bad air” could fell even the halest traveler. A pomander kept your smells from invading the rest of the world, and the world’s smells from infecting you.
There are examples of container jewelry from almost every era of human history and almost every corner of the globe. Perhaps there is something primal about our desire to squirrel away objects, to keep some precious little things on our bodies at all times. Maybe we need small things to feel big. I think, sometimes, that humans are drawn to things that are oversized and things that are terrifically undersized. Like Gulliver, we want to see worlds of both giants and manikins. We like dollhouses and lockets, giant nutcrackers and too-big wineglasses. These things remind of us childhood, and of dreams, places where reality is slippery and true faith is possible.
And maybe we hoard little parts of things in order to feel whole. Maybe prayers need something physical to attach to, hope needs something tangible to ground it, and grief a placeholder for an unspeakable absence.
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Trends tend to grow slowly at first, bubbling under the surface of the collective consciousness. They simmer, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for a few hundred, until some precipitating event when suddenly, the once-obscure trend is everywhere.
That’s how it was with mourning jewelry. Since the 16th century, people had been commissioning jewelers to make them little mementos for their lost ones, rings and bracelets and lockets like the Chequers Ring, which has been dated to the mid-1570s and was worn by Queen Elizabeth I. The gold locket ring is in the shape of an E and adorned with white diamonds, rubies, and mother of pearl. Behind is a secret compartment with two enamel portraits believed to represent Queen Elizabeth herself and her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed when Elizabeth was nearly three years old. Pieces like the Chequers Ring are thematic siblings to the memento mori jewelry that was popular at the time, which often featured jeweled coffins, delicate gold skeletons, and other macabre bits of shiny symbolism. Instead of reminding the viewer that they, too, will die, mourning jewelry reminded the people that the wearer had experienced a loss, that they harbored great grief. Perhaps they also reminded the wearer that they had a right to their sadness. Mourning jewelry made absence visible and tangible. It made sadness present on the physical body.
Queen Victoria didn’t come up with the idea of mourning jewelry, but she did mourn more visibly and publicly than anyone else had, or could. Following the death of her husband Prince Albert in December 1861, Victoria entered a state of permanent mourning. She had the means to grieve decadently, and she did. She didn’t have just one locket for Albert, but several. She wore these charms on bracelets, broaches, and around her neck. It was her style; according to historian Claudia Acott Williams, Victoria’s first piece of sentimental jewelry was a gift from her mother and contained a lock of her deceased father’s hair, as well as several strands of her mother’s hair. During her very public courtship and wedding, “She and Albert would mark so many of those ubiquitous human moments that endeared her to the public with jewelry commissions that were widely publicized in the popular press and subsequently emulated by her subjects.” After Albert was gone, Victoria commissioned a gold memorial locket made with onyx and diamonds. Around the outside of the pendant, enamel letters spell out Die reine Seele schwingt sich auf zu Gott (“the pure soul flies up above to the Lord”). Inside, she placed a lock of Albert’s brown hair and a photograph of her deceased love. Victoria left instructions that, upon the occasion of her death, this locket be placed into Albert’s Room at Windsor Castle and left on display. It must have meant so much to her, that locket. It must have felt like a piece of her broken heart, an emotional wound made wearable and beautiful.
People of all socio-economic strata wore mourning jewelry of some kind. After all, you didn’t need to use costly gems; you could just give the deceased a post-mortem haircut and use the strands to create a bracelet or a ring. Some jewelry even featured bones in place of jewels (Victoria had a gold thistle brooch set with her daughter Vicky’s first lost milk tooth in place of the flower), though this wasn’t nearly as common as jewelry that featured woven, braided, or knotted hair. “If you’re poor, you wouldn’t have access to photography. That’s too expensive,” says Art of Mourning’s Peters. “But you could cut your hair off and pop it in a locket and give it to someone you love. That way, you can be with them always.”
Peters also notes many jewelers trying to capitalize on the trend played a bit fast and loose with the sources for their hair weavings. Sometimes you’d go to a craftsperson and ask that a locket be made with your beloved’s hair, and you’d return home with a piece made from their hair — and then some. “A lot of the hair they used was from nunneries,” he explains. Some customers knew that the hair was being supplemented, but not everyone was aware of this practice.
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Even more disturbing to Peters was the role that advertising played in the promotion of mourning goods and rituals. “Exploitation of death through grief is as certain as death itself,” writes Peters in an essay published in A Miscellany of Death & Folly. “In particular, fashion has been a focal point through which death has been exploited, due to its highly emotive nature.” Department stores stocked solely with mourning paraphernalia began to pop up. Peters makes it clear that these items weren’t necessarily all that personal. Often, each mourner that attended a funeral would be gifted a simple ring, and people tended to judge the lives of their peers by the type and quality of jewelry they left behind for grieving friends and neighbors.
The sentimental jewelry trend wasn’t confined to the Continent. It was also fashionable in America to wear hair brooches, silver lockets, and other personal pieces. After the Industrial Revolution, people from most social classes could buy mass produced lockets, which they could then fill with photographs of their beloved or bits of their hair. Many of these were made in Newark, New Jersey, the jewelry manufacturing capital of the United States. The industry got its start there in the early 1800s, and by the late 1920s, Newark was producing 90 percent of the 14-karat gold jewelry in America. Alongside the full-color images of filigree gold pendants and colorful “fruit salad” bracelets and the essays about the shifting trends in American consumerism, The Glitter & The Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry tells tales of abuse and exploitation. Though the journeyman jewelers were fairly well paid, conditions in factories were generally grim and child labor was commonplace. Paid far less than their male coworkers, girls were often employed to do the most precise handwork, like fashioning gold watch chains or hand-painting enamel, because of their thin and dexterous fingers. “The jewelers work, in all its branches, is particularly trying to the eyes, and it not infrequently happens that defective sight compels men to abandon the trade,” reported chief of the state’s Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries around the turn of the twentieth century. Smead adds that “respiratory disorders were also common — common enough to be the leading cause of death among jewelers.”
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By the time the Civil War came about, many middle class Americans were purchasing costume and fine jewelry that was made in Newark (though often factories would mark their goods “London” or “Paris” since U.S.-made items wouldn’t come into vogue for another fifty years). Lockets, heart-shaped and oval, were particularly popular during this socially chaotic period, and showed up frequently in literature and art. It was common practice for soldiers and their sweethearts to exchange sentimental trinkets before the man marched off to battle. A posthumously published and mostly-forgotten short story by Kate Chopin makes one such piece a central player: “The Locket” switches perspectives between a young Confederate soldier and his sweetheart. He had been wearing a locket, given to him by his girl at home, which he refers to as his good luck charm. After the battle, the same gold necklace is plucked off a corpse and mailed to the girl, who assumes that her love was killed. At the end, he returns home to find his lover dressed all in black. Another boy died, one who stole the locket believing that its “voodoo” would keep him alive. Our ersatz hero lives, thank the gods of love.
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It’s a sentimental story about a sentimental piece of jewelry, and I can’t say I liked it much. It reminds me of a Nicholas Sparks story, or a Thomas Kinkade painting, or any other corny, sappy work of art. It drips with tears and snot. It has a hollow core: too much emotion, not enough meat. The story is set up as a tragedy, but at the last minute, Chopin pulls the rug out from under the reader and wraps them in a cozy blanket. Here, she says, here is what you wanted.
As for the boy who died? Well, we’re not supposed to think hard about him. Surely he deserved to die, for he was a thief and a coward. Like most sentimental works, it follows pat beats: a problem is set up, an exchange happens, a resolution is reached. In the end, the titular locket is revealed to have had no power — except to trick the woman into believing her love was lost, and perhaps to trick the robber into thinking he was safe on the battlefield.
That’s the dirty heart of the story. Maybe it’s not about the character’s great love, but the reader’s great fear. Fear that there is no protection from death, that there is no charm to keep away loss. Fear that unlike the boy in the story, your boy won’t come back.
Twenty-first century mourning has gone in two very different directions. It’s either become entirely intangible or deeply physical, almost to an obsessive degree. There are online guest books to mourn the dead, ghostly Facebook pages that live on “in legacy,” and online grief support groups, or you can buy diamonds made from the hair and ashes of a dead loved one. “Cremation diamonds are forever since they are diamonds made out of human ashes,” reads the website for Lonité, a Switzerland-based company that pressurizes the carbon-rich remnants of a body in order to “grow” amber-colored jewels that start at $1250 per quarter-carat, significantly less than most mined diamonds but slightly more than the average lab-grown diamond. Other companies will turn your ashes into glass beads or encase them in clay or metal. And while hair jewelry isn’t quite as fashionable as it once was, there are still hair artists who can weave a lock of hair into a keepsake.
It’s tempting to conclude that the ugliest part of lockets is what we put inside them—the poison, the remnants, the evidence of adultery, and the perfumed animal oils. But I think the worst part is how desperately we try to shrink down our emotions, to make them small and private and containable. Instead of sharing our fears aloud or wearing our sadness on the surface, we place it into jeweled containers, objects that latch and close and can be tucked under the shirt, inside the dress. We sublimate our emotions, turning gray flat ashes into brilliant, sparkling diamonds.
“If we can be called best at anything,” writes mortician and author Caitlin Doughty in From Here to Eternity, “it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.” She goes to a village in Indonesia, where dead bodies are paraded through the streets while mourners keen and wail and cheer; Mexico, where mummies sit on altars waiting for families to come and give them gifts; and Japan, where family members visit a high-tech crematorium to gather up fragments of their lost and loved with chopsticks. To Americans, she admits, these customs may seem disrespectful. But they are not. They’re ways of working through grief. Giving mourners a task grants them purpose and a sense of control. Giving mourners a public space to celebrate their dead offers much-needed moments of physical and emotional catharsis. Giving mourners access to the dead body provides a sense of closeness and closure.
American culture lacks these rituals. Instead, we have single-day funerals. We have mass-produced headstones, mass-produced urns, mass-produced lockets that allow us to minimize loss without moving through it. There is no federal law that grants paid bereavement leave, not even for the death of a spouse or a child. Your interior world may have collapsed, but you are still expected to prove your worth. Grieve, but be productive.
Peters argues that hair art isn’t morbid, but rather a healthy sign that people can “live with” grief. I’m not so sure. I tend to agree more with McLaughlin, who stresses the locked-away part of the locket. “Lately, I feel like everything is about control,” says McLaughlin. “The world is bursting into flames around us and there’s basically nothing we can do about it, so instead we cling harder to the tiny things that mean something to us.” And maybe, she adds, the act of keeping these things “close and hidden away from others heightens that feeling of safety and control.” We don’t come together and howl in grief. We don’t keen at the sky or wail around the pyre or hold our dead tightly and brush their hair.
I have a cousin who died young from suicide. He was a few years older than me, and I spent the first sixteen years of my life looking up to him. He painted his nails with sparkly blue polish and dyed his hair black. He could do an incredible Irish accent. He took drugs and defended me from the worst abuses of my older brother. He was protective of me, and I loved him for it. I have very few memories of the funeral. I was deep in a depression of my own, and hadn’t yet discovered the value of medication. Many of my memories from those years are foggy and insubstantial, clouded by grief, marijuana, and hormones. I sometimes re-read the guestbook at Legacy.com where people write him messages. I receive email alerts when new posts are added. I am glad it exists, but it feels terribly incomplete. In grief, everything feels incomplete.
I do not have a necklace with a locket holding his dyed hair, but I do have a tiny little pill container that attaches to my key ring. In it, I have three pills. They soothe me, they calm me, they give me a sense of control. It’s with me at all times. I have often dared to imagine a world where I didn’t need them. Where I could cry in public, wail on the street, get snot and tears on my good clothes. Where I could allow emotions to be as big as they needed to be. Until then, I have my version of the poison ring, the pomander ball, the little locket, designed to protect. Designed to contain.
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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.