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“The past after all is only another name for someone else’s present.” David McCullough, Historian
What is the history of the locket?
While all jewelry is personal, the locket is perhaps the most personal of all.
Speaking about lockets, British locket enthusiast and collector Sheherazade Goldsmith says:
“They’re heirlooms that represent a moment in time … [walking in London] I’d come across engraved silver hearts in Portobello Road antique stalls and wonder about the stories.”
Lockets can tell stories – on a grand and an historical scale. Gold lockets, silver lockets, jeweled lockets – these can mean more than the sum of their parts. Such was the case when lockets were worn to express membership in a secret society – an allegiance to a slain monarch in the divided political landscape of Great Britain following the execution of British King Charles I in 1649.
Lockets and charms mean more than other jewelry or keepsake because they tell a singular story. The history of locket necklaces is important on a number of different levels. What these pieces convey is profound.
Lockets express what it means to be human in absolutely distinct terms. They celebrate what it means to love, and to honor. They mark what it means to remember and to mourn. In this way, lockets and charms offer us a window to our past. These lockets and charms may be made of silver. Some lockets and charms are gold. Many lockets contain a photo or a picture. Others lockets contain ashes or locks of hair.
Clearly, the vast majority of the stories contained in individual lockets are insignificant to world history overall. Few pieces, for example, now represent allegiance to fallen monarchs.
This fact does not, however, diminish the overall import of a locket necklace. Locket necklace history transcends individual stories. What these pieces represent is hugely significant to the history of a family. And ultimately, this is what history is made of – this interconnected tapestry of universal experience. Wherein we grow, we marry, we give birth, we age, and we die.
These are the lockets now containing grainy photographs pressed under old glass of young soldiers off to battle. Of now-elderly grandparents standing on a porch with all of their lives, as yet to unspool, before them.
In this way, lockets, and keepsake collectibles are extremely intimate.
For centuries, the locket— a pendant that opens to contain a portrait, a lock of hair, or a tiny love letter—has been a classic accessory. Lockets may also be part of a bracelet, a ring, or more.
Understanding the locket definition is key to understanding the overall importance of these collectibles.
Over the course of history, lockets have been worn by men as much as they have by women. There have been many lockets designed for men. Although the word locket now brings to mind a more feminine pendant on a chain, the function of a locket can (and should) be considered in more general terms, as well.
Lockets have evolved in many forms at different points in history. We now think of heart lockets. Or photo lockets. Or silver lockets. Or gold lockets. However, these collectibles have been worn as rings, pendants, buttons, banners, and more.
Lockets and charms evolved to meet a particular, often somewhat utilitarian, need. When they were worn by monarchs, they could be grand and bejeweled. When they were carried on the person of a World War I soldier in the trenches of Flanders Fields, they could be small and simple – not encumbered by jewels – but suffused with precious meaning. (The latter was the very definition of sweetheart jewelry). Sweetheart jewelry figured prominently into military history, especially during World Wars I and II.
Lockets came into increasing prominence over the course of the 19th Century but date back far earlier.
Lockets have represented the bonds of love and of marriage. Heart lockets represented love. They have celebrated union. In addition, lockets have been used in mourning. Some pieces were lockets to contain ashes. They preserved the memory of the dead, while keeping their physical remains close.
The symbolism of the locket necklace is reflected in many arenas. Lockets are a seminal part of the plot in classic literature. Some of the most passionate couplings express tempestuous and tumultuous eternal love through the symbolism of the locket necklace.
Featured, for example, in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, at the death of Catherine, Heathcliff removes his rival-in-love Edgar’s hair from her locket necklace – replacing it with his own. A nod to Dying-Catherine’s impassioned declaration of love to Heathcliff:
“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
In short, locket necklaces have represented aspiration and love; loss and longing.
The history of the locket necklace represents nothing less than the all-encompassing experience of being human.
Though increasingly prominent by the 19th Century, locket necklaces evolved far earlier from ancient amulets. European designs for lockets appear to date to the 16th century, when small pendants were worn to conceal good luck charms to ward off evil spirits.
Some lockets were used as a defense against chaotic and germ-ridden settings. A whiff of a pleasant smell could go a long way to defending against the stench of collective living in more densely packed areas, such as within slowly evolving urban centers. These lockets would have contained a small fabric square soaked in perfume.
Other lockets of this time contained a tiny painted portrait. The portrait tended to be the in the image of the person gifting the locket.
Once in a while, these lockets even contained poison. A point of history hinting at intrigue one cannot even begin to guess at.
These lockets and charms could also express a personal or a collective identity – a family crest, or an allegiance to a Crown or a Monarch.
Queen Elizabeth I had a locket ring commissioned for her circa 1575. This ring contained two portraits. One was of herself, and the other one of her late mother, Anne Boleyn. The ring was made from a band of mother of pearl with diamonds and rubies. The gold locket was ornate. Queen Elizabeth I was also known to gift lavish, jewel encrusted lockets to many of her favorite and loyal subjects, including the English Sea Captain, Sir Francis Drake.
Following the execution of English King Charles I in 1649, those who maintained their allegiance wore miniature portraits as a political statement, and in his honor. These portraits were contained within secret rings, and other lockets and charms. A few of these lockets were said to contain locks of King Charles’ hair.
The back story to some English necklace lockets and charms dating from the 1740’s is heartbreaking indeed. Locket necklaces representing “fallen women” came into circulation. These locket necklaces were used to identify the babies born to unmarried women in England. Children who were illegitimate suffered a tremendous social stigma.
As a result, many of these unwed mothers (“fallen women”) delivered their babies to foundling hospitals. The identical leaves of the locket necklace they were issued were then separated. If a mother returned to claim her baby, she proved her maternity by presenting her half of the locket necklace.
“Although it is impossible not to see them as fragile mementos of the mother’s heartbreak and loss, their function was in fact practical.”
[Author’s note: this must be the origin of the plot of the musical Annie in which Annie’s kidnappers pose as her parents by presenting half of a locket necklace].
Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, lockets continued to grow in popularity. Heart shaped lockets became popular. They represented love. They contained portraits, or locks of hair.
Locks of hair were held inside a heart shaped locket to represent romantic love for another. These heart lockets were often transparent. The hair’s visibility was representative of reciprocal commitment to a beloved romantic partner. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a marriage proposal is assumed when a miniature portrait and a lock of hair are referenced.
Daguerreotype, a precursor to photography, emerged as a popular way to fill lockets in the mid-19th century. This was a method of placing an image on a copper or silver plate and lent itself easily to locket production. This method predates the photo locket, but it similar. However, daguerreotype was an expensive process. It kept locket necklaces and charms out of the reach of most.
The emergence of photography would have a profound impact on how lockets were produced. War photography began to develop during the American Civil War (1860-1865). Over the course of a century photo lockets would spread in accessibility and affordability. There was much to mourn on the battlefields, and during Reconstruction as a young country came to terms with the deaths of almost 850,000 countrymen.
Locket necklaces and charms played a small part, initially, in this process. But even this small role foreshadowed the enormity of what was to come. (The lockets and charms that were worn during the American Civil War tended to contain locks of hair, rather than photographs).
At the time of the Civil War, photography was not yet widespread. Chemicals for development of images were unstable which prevented large-scale documentation and reproduction. Most photographs tended to fade quickly. Lockets with pictures were therefore quite rare. However, those that remained fast took on a real significance. There are some battlefield pictures. There are some portraits of historical figures, such as President Abraham Lincoln. These inform our sense of history. And they inform our sense of locket necklace history.
Following the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth immediately after the Civil War, the President was memorialized in a number of ways. Among the artifacts is a brass button with a photograph of the Great Emancipator.
The photograph, pressed into a button had impact. It reminded that America [had to] defend a consciousness and a shared sense of belonging. Photography memorialized in this way “even helped unify and return through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making.” This kind of locket for men reminds – in real terms – that lockets for men are extremely significant in locket necklace history.
In Great Britain during her reign, English Queen Victoria (1876 – 1901) popularized lockets. Although Victorian lockets were not widely for sale, these lockets with pictures became known to her subjects. Queen Victoria wore intricate lockets on necklaces as well as on bracelets. She kept those close to her in this way. She honored her family and her inner circle. She used lockets, as well, as a means of mourning, following the death of her beloved Prince Albert.
Queen Victoria entered into a period of intense grief during which time she wore a special locket necklace dedicated to the memory of the departed Prince. Mourning jewelry such as this tended to be dark, heavy, and ornate. It contained, of course, a small portrait or another personal item of (or from) the deceased. These locket necklaces with pictures were relevant to locket necklace history – and world history, both.
Queen Victoria popularized the locket necklace and charm by wearing these as a tribute both to the living and to the dead. Locket necklaces and charms at this time contained jewels. Many lockets were hand-painted by leading artists of the day on commission. In addition, they often had intricate monograms carved on the surface to further personalize the piece.
Many lockets and charms from the 16th Century up through the 19th Century were luxury items accessible only to the wealthy or the aristocratic class. There were heart lockets, and lockets with pictures. There were lockets and charms for men. There were locket necklaces for women. However, locket necklace history was only just beginning.
Widespread photography changed everything. Photo lockets became popular as inexpensive mass reproduction of images became possible. Documenting people, as well as moments in time became easier with each passing year. This marked a seismic shift in locket necklace history.
Photography lent itself easily to the proliferation of the photo locket within the general population. Locket necklaces – with their many uses as a way to pay tribute to love and to loss – caught on.
As photography emerged and became increasingly accessible so too did the acquisition of locket necklaces. Writes Susan Sontag:
“That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption – the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed – seems remote indeed from the era of the sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840’s, had only inventors and buffs to appreciate them.”
In sum, photography made locket necklaces generally accessible to most people who wanted one.
During World War I (The Great War), young soldiers in Europe were able to present their loved ones with a photo locket containing a portrait of themselves prior to their shipping out to various entrenched fronts. Some lockets were gold. Some lockets were silver. Some locket necklaces and charms were made from less precious materials, as well.
In the United States, a surge in the demand for locket necklaces corresponds to the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. These locket necklaces were so popular that they were sold at post offices so that they could be filled and easily shipped to any number of war fronts.
This marked the emergence of wartime Sweetheart Jewelry. Sweetheart jewelry and collectibles were closely associated with military history of the 20th Century. Locket necklaces were worn by women left behind to hope for the safe return of their loved one(s).
These lockets and charms were also carried and worn by men in battle as a reminder of home. Soldiers in battle carried lockets and charms with pictures of their wives, mothers, and children. These comforting images were contained in unisex locket pins, bracelets, buttons, and necklaces.
The trend for Sweetheart Jewelry and collectibles continued into World War II (1939 – 1945). Similar to items worn in World War I, these mementos were exchanged to cement connection in uncertain and frightening times. Sweetheart Jewelry, such as locket necklaces and charms with photos, affirmed the connection of familial and romantic love. In life or in death.
Sweetheart Jewelry was at once a way to celebrate the bonds of love and also to signal patriotism. This aspect of locket history is closely associated with military history. These lockets and charms clearly indicated country allegiance. These items therefore came to represent love of family, and love of country. In an important way, these keepsakes could knit family and country together at critical moments. For example, when a lonely soldier faced doubt or fear. One is reminded of the immortal W.B. Yeats lines in his poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:
I know that I shall meet my fate/
Somewhere among the clouds above/
Those I fight I do not hate/
Those I guard I do not love.
At such a moment, one can imagine how a cherished photo locket worn on a person might have gone a long way to ground a deployed troop.
Wartime Sweetheart Jewelry also expressed patriotism because items were made from materials other than metal. Metal was rationed. Those who made these locket keepsakes and collectibles did so with wood, Lucite, ivory, pearl, and more.
Locket necklaces can recall history in a deeply personal manner. Consider the story of Tulio and Dario Lovvy. The Lovvy brothers were killed near the end of World War I and were considered to be heroes in battle.
Their grieving parents made a photo locket of their boys. This locket necklace was given to their maternal aunt who was wearing it, when, during World War II she was sent to a detention camp in Italy prior to her deportation to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland or Germany.
Before a final order of deportation, this woman, like others, was stripped of her valuables. Among her valuables was the photo locket necklace she wore to remember her fallen nephews.
Somehow bags of belongings seized in this way found their way to the Italian treasury where they sat for decades. It was only the 1990’s that the items were discovered. Among the items was the photo locket necklace. This clearly identifiable locket necklace tells a story of young men, who died for duty to country, and in defense of family. The irony of the death of their aunt only two decades later needs no further elaboration.
That their story is revealed in this manner is a testament to the singular power of the locket necklace as a teller of stories and a keeper of secrets, both.
Although these lockets and charms were very popular both in Europe and in the United States during World Wars I and II, they fell out of fashion thereafter as an expression of wartime hope and mourning. There is little documentation of lockets as keepsakes in this way in the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War eras.
They faded a bit for a time.
And now, locket necklaces have come roaring back.
The dawn of the 21st Century has delivered a resurgence in lockets. An article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, speculates that photo lockets and charms are back in fashion because they lend themselves to coy mystery in an age of unprecedented transparency. We all live online and share every picture imaginable.
Still, it would seem that that people like to keep secrets.
“It’s hard to remain private in this era of social media and overreaching data collection, but in the world of jewelry, at least – the habit of keeping secrets close to your heart is fashionable again.”
In addition, the emergence of digital photography has changed the way we document. How we select a photo to encase in jewelry requires consideration. (The kind that might occur when a family gathers at a recently deceased matriarch’s home to go through shoe boxes of old photos).
This communal activity invites shared introspection. The purposeful search for the photo to include in a locket necklace gives us opportunity to pause and reflect about what we choose to preserve.
A resurgent appreciation of the locket necklace is one way to meet the challenge thrown down by the writer Susan Sontag. Sontag encourages a photographer to see the “correctness and suitability of a subject.”
Lockets necklaces are gifted now to honor birth. They are given to mark occasions such as graduations, and marriage. They are perhaps the most meaningful gift to commemorate a birthday or Mother’s Day.
Photo locket necklaces remain a way to remember and honor the dead. As a rule, lockets lend themselves appropriately to bereavement. They may contain a photo. But so too are there lockets for ashes in the form of necklaces, rings, or other keepsakes. Prominent wearing of lockets for ashes is increasingly common – especially as people become more comfortable in speaking openly about mortality. It is now common (if not standard) practice for funeral homes to offer the bereaved keepsake jewelry containing a photo. Or a locket made specifically to contain ashes.
People coping with loss often express a wish to literally carry their loved one with them. The bereaved often express an almost primal need not to “scatter” the ashes of a loved one, but rather to keep that person close. In this way, lockets for ashes serve as miniature urns. Or, these lockets contain photos or other mementos. Broadly speaking, these lockets and charms accommodate the wish for continued connection more so than other jewelry.
The gift of a locket necklace or charm is immense as a ritual in and of itself. This is especially true in the context of the fast-paced lives we lead. Further, in a digital age, reproduction has become almost too easy.
Of late, the locket necklace has come into the modern age with digital options.
Filling a locket necklace or keepsake offers a unique opportunity for reflection. It invites introspection wherein someone chooses to honor another person. It presents a moment to consider what moments, big and small, mean. To cherish what they represent. And to gift that memory.
With You was founded as a tribute to a daughter’s love for her father. Founder Mikki Glass lost her father to brain cancer when she (and he) were far too young. When Mikki’s sister decided to marry, it occurred to Mikki that she wanted to find a way for her sister to include their beloved father in her wedding ceremony.
Recalling the death of her father and the genesis of With You, Mikki writes:
“My heartbreak would only increase as life’s milestones popped up. Those moments he wouldn’t be a part of were the ones that hurt the most. Three years after he died, my sister was engaged to be married and I wanted our father to be a part of the wedding, not just a memory. I created an anklet with a locket and tucked his photos inside so he could walk her down the aisle … I wore that anklet at my own wedding day and soon began making them for other friends and family. My heartbreak abated with each locket I created for others. But the idea of carrying him with me in some way remained.”
And with that, Mikki decided to formally launch With You. She wanted to remember the democracy of the locket necklace by creating merchandise that was well-made and beautiful – but also possible to afford. In a nod to locket necklace history, she set out to offer lockets for men as well as lockets for women. With You merchandise includes locket necklaces, locket bracelets, locket rings, and locket cufflinks, among other keepsake collectible items.
Working with her husband Troy Haley, himself an Army veteran, the two have built a brand. Together they set out to honor the stories of regular people using the locket necklace as their medium for expression. This is reflected in the stories their clients share. It is further reflected in the tributes contained in the names of each locket.
With You recognizes that heirloom locket jewelry should not break the bank and seeks to provide a customized keepsake to mark any occasion. With You products are made to stand the test of time. The company takes pride and pleasure in each piece and in ensuring that clients are pleased with the result.
The goal is simple: to create locket necklaces to be passed through generations – while remaining affordable. (As we dusted off the history of the locket necklace and keepsake, we discovered that it is nothing if not democratic). This is the legacy of the sometimes fancy (but often humble) locket necklace.
With You Founders want the stories of family to tumble down through the generations. They want a little girl to pause at the top of the stairs, recognizing an old photo because she has seen it in her mother’s locket necklace. They want her to understand that someday that locket keepsake will belong to her. They are about generational interconnectedness – and love of family.
With You lockets are made to mark all occasions – births, graduations, marriages. Lockets and charms are heirlooms. Each piece tells a very particular and extremely personal story. The most compelling part of locket necklace wearing relates to the deeper meaning each piece contains.
Mikki and Troy believe that in honoring a loved one in creating a custom photo locket, a family history is preserved. What photograph, frozen in time, will someday land in a locket necklace or charm? Which descendant will uncover it, unfasten it and put it on? We all have unidentified pictures of people framed and buried deep within chests of drawers. When they are inevitably discovered they have a story to tell. A mystery, sometimes. But here they are – contained in a locket necklace charm – evidence of their existence.