The A-Z of Jewelry: L is for... Lockets

By Sarah Jordan
Continuing our series exploring the history of jewelry trends, here, Sarah Jordan looks at the history of the popular, sentimental item.

A lthough lockets can be traced back centuries to ancient amulets and talismans, it was only in the 16th century when lockets as we understand them today were first fashioned. Wealthy Europeans chose small pendants to conceal their good luck charms, miniature painted portraits or, more commonly, fabric squares dosed in perfume to ward off the ills of the day. Although contemporary lockets are typically worn in pendant form, Queen Elizabeth I was known to wear her locket ring daily because it contained a portrait of her late mother, Anne Boleyn.

By the mid-17th century, loyalists on the side of the soon-to-be executed King Charles I took to wearing lockets with concealed compartments, designed to hide portraits of their beloved King. During the same period, lockets were a popular, albeit sentimental, choice for men and women. The trend for an encased lock of hair soon morphed into elaborate ‘hair jeweler, whereby strands were intricately curled or plaited and placed inside a transparent locket, in full view of the world. By the 18th century, this was achieved through thin slices of rock crystal or glass, which had a magnifying effect.

Lockets enjoyed a surge in popularity during the sentimental Victorian era, which saw women secure locks of hair, portraits and love notes around their necks or wrists with velvet ribbons. Prince Albert gifted his wife Queen Victoria with a locket bracelet complete with nine lockets, each one containing a strand of hair from their children. When he died suddenly aged just 42, Queen Victoria wore a locket containing a photo of her beloved Albert as a daily reminder of her grief.

Within this context, it is clear to see why lockets became such a strong symbol of mourning in the mid- to late-19th century. Some of the finest examples of this ‘mourning jewelry are set with inky black onyx and jet. And although these were likely to be owned exclusively by the elite, the emerging mass production techniques of the era were beginning to make lockets more affordable for all. As a result, the locket was a mainstay of popular jewelry right up until the First World War, where they were exchanged between soldiers and their loved-ones as symbols of love across seas and beyond borders.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Dazzling Jewels