Whether you love or hate it, there’s no denying that mourning and sentimental jewelry—such as lover’s eyes and Victorian hair jewelry—are some of the rarest and most unique out there. Jeweler Sarah Nehama became fascinated with mourning jewelry when she began researching the history of a brooch she purchased, and her collection has grown since then. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the history of this intimate type of jewelry and how antique jewels influence her work in the studio. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Sarah Nehama, who is a studio jeweler creating limited edition, handmade pieces in high-carat gold, sterling and gemstones. She’s also a collector and authority on mourning and sentimental jewelry, and she co-curated an exhibit with the Massachusetts Historical Society on mourning jewelry and art. Today, we’ll hear about her studio work and her collecting. Sarah, welcome to the program.
Sarah: Thank you, Sharon, thank you for having me.
Sharon: It’s so great to be talking with you. You’re a studio jeweler, and you create one-of-a-kind and limited edition, handmade pieces. You use high-carat gold and sterling. I’m looking at your work, and you use a lot of beautiful gemstones. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? When did you start liking jewelry, and when did you know that’s what you wanted to do as a livelihood?
Sarah: I started liking jewelry as a young girl. I used to go to my mother’s jewelry box, and I remember telling her, “I want this and I want this.” It was usually the antique pieces that I was attracted to. She had things she had gotten from her mother, older pieces from Paris and Switzerland as well as jewelry in the Grecian style from Greece, so my mother had some pieces like that. I always liked it.
When did I know I wanted to create jewelry for my livelihood? I had gone to university and gotten a degree in art history, and I had always liked working with my hands. I thought maybe I would go to art school, but I liked the academic life and I didn’t really have one medium that I worked in. So I did my degree and then wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after. I thought about perhaps art restoration or getting a master’s degree, but then I took a jewelry class as a hobby and I loved it so much that I enrolled in a school in Boston. It was then, as soon as the first day, when I was sitting down at a bench making things, that I knew I loved it and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. You weren’t studying metalsmithing throughout college or shop class.
Sarah: No, I wasn’t.
Sharon: How did you get interested in mourning and sentimental jewelry? To everybody listening, we’re talking about when somebody’s in mourning.
Sarah: Yeah, correct.
Sharon: What is it that attracts you to it?
Sarah: Although I liked antique jewelry and I liked going to antique shows, it had never really registered with me. It was never on my radar. One day, I was living in Los Angeles and I was looking online at antique Victorian jewelry. I saw a little brooch and it said, “In memory of Sarah,” and it had hair in it, and I thought, “Oh, this is curious,” and it was described as mourning jewelry. I loved it. I thought, “I need to have that. It’s got my name in it.” I bought it, and that was what sparked my interest in finding out what is mourning jewelry and who was Sarah. From there, it snowballed into this fascination and I started learning more about it. I started learning about sentimental jewelry, which was often very similar to mourning jewelry in the materials and style. That was what did it, and that was in 2004.
Sharon: When you say mourning and sentimental jewelry, are lover’s eyes sentimental? What is sentimental besides mourning jewelry, the Victorian dearest, flowers, that sort of thing?
Sarah: Mourning jewelry in and of itself is obviously sentimental because it’s commemorating a beloved person or an esteemed person, a friend. You can sort of group it in that, but when I refer to sentimental jewelry, I’m talking more about love tokens or something to honor a family relationship or a friendship that has nothing to do with somebody passing on. Yes, lover’s eyes are certainly a specific type of sentimental jewelry, although there are a few that are mourning as well. They were a fad that was popular from 1790 to 1820. There are other kinds of sentimental jewelry, betrothal jewels—and I’m not talking about wedding rings, but brooches, bracelet clasps, ribbon slides and friendship tokens. Like I said, they are things that will honor family relationships, say a locket with hair from multiple family members.
Sharon: That’s interesting about the lover’s eyes sometimes being an image of a deceased person’s eye. I never realized that. When you think of lover’s eyes, of course you think of lovers and the tokens they carried. We don’t know who the lover’s eye is from for the most part, do we?
Sarah: Right. It was meant to be a secret, and they are very rare. First of all, lover’s eyes in and of themselves are rare. There are many fakes out there, but even rarer are the ones used for mourning. Usually, you will see something surrounded by clouds or with a tear or the eye looking heavenward. Those are indications, especially dark clouds, that it could be in memory of somebody who’s passed on. It’s hard to know because if there’s no dedication, as much of mourning jewelry does have a name and a date of death at least, you can’t be certain.
Sharon: I want to stop here for a minute in case some people listening may not know what we’re talking about when we talk about a lover’s eye. Can you describe what a lover’s eye is in terms of jewelry?
Sarah: Sure, it’s a miniature painting of an eye, usually in watercolor, on ivory in a locket. It can be in a locket; that’s the most common. It can be in a ring, but I’ve seen them also in other kinds of trinkets, like snuff boxes and small vessels. According to history or legend, they originated when the Prince of Wales, who was later George IV, felt he needed to send a token of love to Maria Fitzherbert, who he wanted to marry. She was a widow, and his father did not approve of the marriage because she was divorced. They married in secret and Maria’s eye was painted by George Engleheart, I believe—oh no, it must have been Richard Cosway. Anyway, he kept this eye miniature and wore it all the time under his lapel and he reputedly died with it on as well. It’s got this cachet of a secret lover, somebody that’s very dear to you that you always keep close, but nobody will know who it is because it’s just their eyes. Only you will know.
Sharon: I didn’t realize it was such a short period that they were popular. It was less than 50 years.
Sarah: There was a revival of it in the Victorian Era. I believe Queen Victoria had some eye paintings, but the Georgian eye miniatures are just that short window of time of 30 years.
Sharon: Wow, talk about being rare!
Sarah: They are rare.
Sharon: The ones I’ve seen must have been Victorian and they must have already been converted because for the most part, I’ve only seen them in brooches. You’re talking about them being in rings and lockets and things like that.
Sarah: Yeah, rings are less common, like brooches and pendants, and they were popular in France and England. I think Russia had even a short spell of popularity with them. It’s hard because they wanted that memento made, and yet there are so many fakes out there, from really terrible to some very good people who take an old piece of ivory and paint an eye on it, or even people who cut out an eye from an existing Georgian miniature and set it in a locket of that time period.
Sharon: I know there are a lot of fakes out there because they’re so intriguing.
Sharon: Getting back into mourning jewelry, when I think of mourning jewelry, I think of hair jewelry. Are there other kinds of mourning jewelry?
Sarah: Oh yes, there definitely are. In fact, many mourning pieces have no hair at all. There are enamel bands with no hair that say, “In memory of,” or they perhaps have the name and date of death of the person and their age in gold set in black enamel. There’s also jet jewelry with mourning motifs. Whitby jet in particular was very popular in the Victorian era. There was a huge industry of it and a lot of that was facilitated by Queen Victoria who, when Prince Albert died, went into full mourning and remained that way. She wore jet and insisted that people at the court wear mourning, so jet was a very popular jewelry material, also watercolor on ivory and miniature mourning themes in lockets. There is definitely mourning jewelry with no hair.
Sharon: Talking about the hair jewelry, I think it’s interesting, but it’s never really attracted me. It’s not something I collect, but I know a lot of people think it’s so weird or they’re really repelled by it. What is it that you like about it? I’m presuming that it’s part of your collection.
Sarah: It’s not so much the hair that attracts me, although some of the hair work is so beautiful and intricate. It’s an art form that attracts me, but I’m not adverse to hair jewelry, either. I understand that there’s a cultural repugnance in our culture towards a stranger’s hair. In Victorian society, only the hair of a close family member or a child or a lover was used, but in and of itself, the hair is not dirty. In order to be worked into these patterns and designs we see, it has to be boiled, but I get it. It’s a cultural thing, although I think that’s changing as our attitudes around death itself are changing. I will say this: A woven hair chain or bracelet is very itchy on the skin. Personally, for me, I prefer hair under crystal or glass. I have, for example, a Victorian pair of earrings that are just hair with little gold windings for the ear wires and tacks. I’m certainly not repelled by it, but I do prefer the hair under glass for comfort’s sake.
Sharon: The hair has to be boiled first?
Sarah: Yes, boiled. I don’t know the whole process of hair work. I know there are contemporary people that do it.
Sharon: I’ve seen classes and seminars. People will teach it for an hour or two.
Sarah: Exactly. There are various techniques. There are techniques where it’s boiled and then mixed with gum arabic, I believe, and it’s laid on a pallet and you can cut out shapes with a very sharp blade. You can make flat patterns, floral designs and so forth. There’s also table work, where you have these little roundtables with a hole in the middle and you use bobbins to weave this pattern to make chains. There are a number of different techniques. I’m not fluent in how they’re all done, but I have a little bit of familiarity with it and I appreciate the workmanship.
Sharon: It’s flabbergasting that it’s so detailed.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s incredible.
Sharon: I read that you’ve researched some of the mourning pieces to find out who they belonged to, who the deceased was. How did you do that?
Sarah: Very simply. Oftentimes, I will just put in the name and the date of death, and I’ll do a search on family genealogy. We’re lucky because a lot of the pieces that come from England, they have very good search records. I’ve been able, just with that, to find out some basic information. Some things definitely take a lot more research. I’m not a genealogist, but I’m persistent, and I have been able to find out some very interesting things about people. The other thing is, especially with the earlier jewels in the Georgian Era, they were for people that could afford them, the people of means and education. So often there will be more detailed records, like land documents or wills, that are available online. Especially if it’s a man, let’s say, rather than a child or a woman, you can generally find a fair amount of information. Whenever I get something and I have the name, I’ll certainly try to look it up. There’s some that I haven’t been able to find anything, and I want to, so it’s an ongoing thing. But I have definitely been able to find some really interesting things.
Sharon: Tell us more about the work you do today. Does your interest in mourning and sentimental jewelry influence it? I’d like to hear more about what you’re doing in your studio.
Sarah: As you said, I do one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces. I do custom work for people. I love working in 22-carat gold, but I also enjoy working in sterling silver, and I have customers for each. Gemstones are a big passion of mine, unusual, interesting gemstones. They don’t have to be precious per se, and I work with a lot of different cutters, dealers and carvers to try to find very unique pieces.
Does mourning jewelry influence my work? I’d say to a certain degree. I actually have been commissioned to make mourning pieces for pets, where people have lost their beloved pet and they’ve taken the fur and wanted me to enclose it under crystal. I’ve done that, and actually I have a bracelet. It was sold to me as a mourning bracelet for nine dogs, but I’m thinking it was for horses now, because horse hair is very similar to human hair as we know. There are little lockets and I have to do more research on it. It’s from 1851. It’s an incredible piece, but it’s definitely for animals. People throughout time have loved their animals and pets, and I’ve seen post-mortem photographs with pets. People have wanted to honor that relationship, too, and I consider it an honor if somebody asks me to do that.
The other projects I have done are what I call my ancestor rings, which are generally sterling silver rings with a faceted rose cut rock crystal, so it’s optically clear but faceted. Then I’ll take a small gem tintype and set it under the crystal. These are not for people. I’ve done some custom pieces where people have given me an old tintype that’s been in their family, but generally I source these. I don’t usually know who the subject is, but I look for interesting faces and hairstyles or clothes, sometimes two people together. Generally, I’ll make rings, but I’ve made pendants as well. That is the closest to sentimental or mourning jewelry.
Sharon: That’s very interesting.
Sarah: Otherwise, what I do is more classically oriented. I love antique jewelry, so I reference it. I do work in granulation, which is done in 22-carat gold with very fine, tiny, little beads of gold making a pattern on a flat surface.
Sharon: It takes quite an expertise to be able to do that.
Sarah: It does. It’s very labor-intensive as well, but for some reason, I don’t lose patience with it. I love it; I get enthralled with it. I had a friend years ago, and she referred to my work as futurist Victorian, which I loved. When I thought about it, I said, “Yeah, you’re probably right. It is kind of like that.” I love the natural world, which the Victorians were fascinated with. I’ll use fossils in my work. I love fossils, shells, things like that. It references more antique jewelry rather than mourning, but I think that influence creeps in.
Right now, I’m working on a piece; it’s been a year in the making and it’s almost finished. It involves hair, and it references mourning and love and loss. It’s a very personal piece. I’ve put a lot of thought and emotion into it, and I won’t even have it for sale. It’s probably only going to be for exhibition. It’s more of an art jewelry piece as opposed to—I mean, it probably could be worn, but that’s a very unique piece for me, a very personal thing. That’s the closest we would get to that.
Sharon: I like your friend’s description. It’s interesting, because you’re working from both ends of the time spectrum, in terms of antique and mourning. If you’re talking about Georgian jewelry, which is so rare and there are so many fakes out there, and the work you do today, which is so contemporary, it’s quite a combination.
Sarah: It’s interesting. I want my work to be wearable. I know it’s not for everybody, but it’s not something that people are mystified by, either. It’s wearable, and I think it’s also not seasonal or a fad. It will carry over, and I want it to be that way. I want it to be something that can be passed down through families or friends, loved ones throughout a person’s life.
Sharon: Having seen photos of the work you do, it’s definitely timeless.
Sarah: There you go.
Sharon: Sarah, thank you so much for being here.
Sarah: Thank you, Sharon.
Sharon: It’s great to talk to you. We’ll have your contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of The Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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