Photo: Wellcome Images
Not immune to the charms of the season, Obscura Antiques has decked the halls in its own unique way—draping the freak taxidermy animals and old medical illustrations in tinsel and tiny Santa hats. It's a festive, if strange, shopping environment for Black Friday.
Seeking a particularly dark treasure for herself, Jessica Stohlmann-Rainey is browsing the shop for antique hair jewelry. "I just think it's so strange and delicate," she explains. "It's weird that it even evolved that way, that people even made it."
For the uninitiated, hair jewelry (also known as mourning jewelry or hairwork) is not made for hair, but from it. Widely popular in Europe and the United States from the late-Georgian era (circa 1714-1830) through the Victorian period before World War I, these fragile, deeply personal pieces were created from elaborately woven human hair set in simple glass cases and gem-studded accessories. From earrings to men's watch fobs to religious items, they were intended to commemorate the passing of a loved one.
Given the weird feelings we have about strangers' hair, even when it's encased in gold and diamonds, why collect these strange objects of affection and memory? According to long-time collector and co-owner of Obscura Evan Michelson, the elements of attraction lay in the complicated emotions they evoke: "I think part of the reason people are fascinated by it is that it does repulse on a certain level. It's powerfully charged because hair really affects people on this visceral level."
Photo: Wellcome Images
Admittedly, this reverberation is also part of what keeps collector, jeweler, and scholar Karen Bachmann hooked. For her, actually wearing the pieces is also a big part of the thrill. "When I wear hair jewelry, people that know the genre will appreciate it and admire it," she recalled recently, "but people that don't know it will look and wonder what it is. That also, in a perverse sort of way, is what interests me."
Bachmann recalls falling in love with the wearable art when she was getting her undergraduate degree from Pratt, studying both sculpture and jewelry-making. "I was interested in the esoteric and the odd, and I became aware of Victorian hairwork at that time," she explains. This was a discovery that prompted her to experiment with making her own modern versions out of an artificial fiber wig—with "terrible" results. But even with that failed first attempt and some harsh criticism from professors who called her work "grotesque," her career thrived and she spent several years working as a master jeweler for Tiffany & Co.
"It's like prison work."
The understanding of the craftsmanship that went into creating these largely homespun items is yet another facet that intrigues collectors. Michelson, who also trained as a jewelry restorer, marvels at the "obsessive" attention to detail in each piece: "It's like prison work." Braiding, weaving, and looping a material as demanding as human hair would've required hours upon hours of practice and instruction to master.
"Victorian hairwork is just so well done," says Michelson. "It takes years of dedication and practice—it was a real craft. The labor involved makes you appreciate the difficult aspect of working with it. I can imagine how working with hair would be an act of devotion, turning these precious relics of someone you love into something more precious."
Photo: Wellcome Images
Both Michelson and Bachmann readily admit, however, that collecting isn't what it used to be, with soaring prices as opposed to decades ago when, as Michelson puts it, "you couldn't give hairwork away." In fact, when she first starting scouring antique shops and flea markets, she found that some dealers were disposing of the hair inside and selling the valuable period frames they came in.
While there's no clear watershed moment that made hairwork a hot collectible, Michelson jokes, "Some time in the mid-'90s someone must've written an article." Still, she and Bachmann press on with their searches, looking for not just quantity, but quality, always on the lookout for especially rare and beautiful pieces.
Each admit to having their own holy grails of rare hairwork they'd love to own.
Bachmann is particularly enamored with a hairwork rosary she searched far and wide for, while Michelson says a "perfect little dollhouse-sized graveyard scene" preserved under a glass dome has a special place in her heart. They love to hunt for these kinds of pieces, across cities, through flea markets, and via networks of other admirers. Each admit to having their own holy grails of rare hairwork they'd love to own, or at least see in person. For Michelson, it's a complete tea and coffee service; for Bachmann, a snake coil bracelet with gold fittings and a long-unseen embroidered portrait of Queen Victoria, both of which where created for display at the event that marked the height of the hairwork craze, the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.
Short of those goals, the drive to explore the medium continues, and Bachmann and Michelson have made their collections part of their everyday lives by adorning the walls and tables of their homes with favorite pieces. "I just can't get enough of it," says Michelson. "It's so beautiful." Bachmann especially treasures her jewelry, marveling at the vast diversity of forms that practitioners of the art have created: "The more I collect it and the more I see the forms that can be made, the more interested I am."
Photo: Wellcome Images
For these women, collecting has long been a largely solitary pursuit. There are online groups—including one who threw an annual meeting known as the "Hair Ball"—but Bachmann and Michelson never cared to join. They connect more with peers involved in scholarship and instruction, rather than simply collecting. In fact, their passion for the subject has come together at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum, where Bachmann is an artist and scholar-in-residence and Michelson is on the board of trustees.
Pieces from their collections are currently on display there for the exhibit "The Art of Mourning," an overview of Victorian death culture, which also includes examples of post-mortem photographs, death masks, and other memorial memorabilia. Discovering and developing the fledgling institute that shared their enthusiasm for these items was "like finding a family you never knew was out there, that understood you," says Bachmann. "It's given me a place to speak about my passion for hair jewelry."
"People carry a lot in their hair, a lot of energy and a lot of emotion."
It's also given her the chance to teach hair jewelry-making; Sue Palchak-Essenpreis has been waiting to take Bachmann's class for months. A hairstylist and a collector of these antiques, she has a special appreciation for the meaning people put into hair. Plus, as someone who works with hair every day, she understands that "people carry a lot in their hair, a lot of energy and a lot of emotion."
Bachmann and Michelson are doing their part to welcome the next era of collectors and creators. Because, in the end, what could honor these anonymous memorials more than creating a legacy that will endure long after this generation too has passed?
All photos come from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. You can find Wellcome Images photos here. All photos used have been cropped for editorial purposes.