The dictionary definition of ‘locket’ is "a small ornamental case, typically made of gold or silver, worn round a person's neck on a chain and used to hold things of sentimental value, such as a photograph”. This little ornamental case can also showcase miniature portraits, a lock of hair, or perhaps a tiny love letter. It is a piece of jewellery that enables you to keep a loved one close to your heart at all times. Over the years lockets have been crafted out of many materials, such as gold, silver, silver plate and even wood. There are many different styles ranging from a simple oval shape to highly decorated heart shaped lockets.
Lockets have been worn for thousands of years, in fact, it has been suggested that the locket can be traced as far back as the 16th Century. They were worn by both men and women. Men who were particularly patriotic often held the monarch’s portrait to display their solidarity.
Lockets are generally worn on chains, as pendants. However, throughout history they have come in different forms, such as a charm locket attached to a bracelet or a locket in the form of a ring. A very famous example of a ring locket is the locket in the form of a ring which was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) in 1575. It held two miniature portraits in it, that of her mother, the late Queen Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) and one of herself. The ring was made from a band of gold and mother of pearl which was then set with diamonds and rubies, specifically, it has an ‘E’ set with six diamonds, placed over an ‘R’ made out of blue enamel, and a hinge opens to reveal the miniature portraits. Queen Elizabeth I wore this locket ring until her death.
The locket was a very trendy item of jewellery to own. It displayed a certain level of class and wealth. This was because during the Elizabethan era the best artists of their time were hired to paint the miniature portraits, which meant the price of such a piece of jewellery was tremendous. That’s not including the price of the precious metals and gemstones that were often used to create the lockets.
Not only were lockets a symbol of wealth simply because of the price of them, but also because Queen Elizabeth I often bestowed a gift of a locket with a portrait of her contained within it to her favourites in court.
Another famous locket is ‘The Penicuik Locket’, which is thought to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. It is an enamelled gold locket which has 14 oval filigree beads with small circular beads which originally contained small deposits of perfume. The locket features two portraits; said to be that of Mary and her son James. It is believed that the locket was given to Giles Mowbray, a loyal servant of Mary, on the eve of her execution in 1587.
By the 17th Century, lockets became even more sentimental and were even used to commemorate past loved ones. Mourning jewellery became very popular around the time of the execution of Charles I in 1649. His loyal followers were known to wear miniature portraits of him set into rings and lockets. Of course, they were worn secretly so the wearer wouldn’t be persecuted. Another locket trend that emerged in the 17th Century was wearing a lock of hair in a locket, this was initially concealed from view in earlier designs.
However, by the 18th Century the lock of hair became incorporated into the design, often twirled or plaited to add pattern. Many lockets were made entirely of glass so as to display the full view of the lock of hair. Another common locket design was the heart shaped locket, in fact heart lockets were the most popular style of locket in the 18th Century. It was claimed that if someone wore a heart locket without a lock of hair inside they were ‘pure’- meaning that they didn’t have a loved one (as of yet).
Georgian Locket History
It was rather normal to have a miniature portrait encased in a locket, but in Georgian times a new fad emerged- eye miniatures, sometimes referred to now as ‘lover’s eyes’. As you can probably guess, an eye miniature is a small painting of an eye. In the late 1700’s they were usually done in watercolour, painted onto ivory, depicting the eye of a child, loved one, spouse of mistress.
These miniatures were popularized by the scandalous love affair between the Prince of Wales, who later was crowned King George IV, and a widowed catholic called Maria Fitzherbert. George IV wanted to send Maria a token of his love, however this sort of thing was frowned upon by the court, so he hired a miniaturist to paint only his eye, thus preserving anonymity.
The pair were married in 1785, despite great disapproval from the court and no approval from George III, making the marriage illegitimate. Later in 1785 they both had eye miniatures commissioned as an imitate symbol of their affection for one another. This event is apparently what made the ‘lover’s eyes’ fashionable, it is said that eye miniatures, (set in all kind of styles, including lockets) emerged in affluent society between 1790 and 1820.
Victorian Locket History
It was in the Victorian era when lockets became extremely popular. Prince Albert gave his beloved Queen Victoria a gift of a bracelet that had eight lockets attached to it, within which contained a lock of hair from each of their eight children. Once Albert died Queen Victoria wore a large mourning locket which contained a photo of him on one side and a lock of his hair on the other.
Not only did lockets become popular because the Queen wore one every day, but also because they could bring a touch of colour to the otherwise rather plain and dull mandatory mourning clothing that Queen Victoria had enforced. The lockets ranged from quite simple designs, to styles adorned with shimmering gemstones.
During World War I it was normal for soldiers to give their loved one’s lockets with their pictures in so as to serve as a reminder of them when they were away for long stretches of time. Because of the high demand for lockets during this time, the quality became significantly poorer than older examples.
In contemporary times lockets are still used to hold pictures of loved ones and are a gorgeous gift for people getting married, a new born baby or perhaps an important birthday such as a 21st or a 50th.