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A Love Affair with Lockets

A Victorian jewelry staple, lockets are once again a popular fashion accessory.

By Phyllis Schiller
From their heyday in the Victorian era and forward, lockets have combined form and function in a wonderfully fashionable way. Decorative and deeply personal jewelry, they allowed the wearer to carry items they valued close to their heart. Most often worn on a chain, or pinned to clothing, the hinged pendants had compartments that could hold a variety of items prized by the wearer. Carried within could be anything from powder to miniature portraits, herbal remedies and even poison.

During WWII, women tucked photos of their loved ones serving overseas into lockets. In Victorian times, as mourning jewelry, lockets were worn by both men and women to honor the memories of those who had died. Inside might be locks of hair or scraps of fabric from a favorite outfit or even ashes of the dearly departed.

In Demand

Today, lockets are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. “When I went into the business 20 years ago,” recalls Annette Brandt, A. Brandt and Son Antique Jewelry, Narberth, Pennsylvania, “I don’t remember them being as popular. But they’re popular now. I sell all my fabulous lockets; I can’t keep them in stock.”

Lisa M. Stockhammer, president of The ThreeGraces.com, an online retailer of antique and vintage jewelry, reports a steady business in lockets. “They’ve been a perennial favorite.” Some people group several lockets on a chain, Stockhammer continues. “Some put small lockets on a charm bracelet as charms, although they’re a bit larger in scale than most charms.”

On the West Coast, Suzanne Martinez, Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry, San Francisco, California, says many customers pair the Victorian lockets she sells with a long Victorian watch chain to create a vintage look.

“They double the chain around, so the locket appears suspended between the two chains.”

In New York, Elizabeth Doyle, co-owner of the boutique Doyle & Doyle, notes that “a small locket is a great understated, everyday piece. We also see younger girls layering lockets with some of their other favorite pieces. A large locket is a great statement piece on a long chunky chain or even a ribbon or cord.” Brandt observes some customers are wearing them on a flat “book chain,” the way they did in the Victorian era. “My understanding is that with these book chains, a woman would take her locket off and place it in the book and because the chain was flat, it would hold the place.”

A Multitude of Metals, Shapes and Sizes

Stockhammer carries “every type of locket, from the most plain to enamels, to those decorated with semiprecious gems, turquoise, pearl, pictures of women.” Although lockets come in silver or gold, she tends to carry more yellow gold, along with some white gold and platinum.

Martinez stocks primarily Victorian lockets, she says, with a few from the early twentieth century, including Art Nouveau styles. “The majority are yellow gold with a few silver. Many of the Victorian lockets are set with a single diamond, or, occasionally, other stones.” Embellishments, she says, include cameos, multicolored gold appliqué, fine engraving, repoussé — a raised metal technique —platinum appliqué, enamel and pearls.”

Doyle carries lockets in silver, gold and platinum. “They can be anything from simple, plain metal lockets to guilloche enamel. Often we carry gold lockets with an antique cut diamond set within an engraved star. We see platinum lockets entirely pavé set with diamonds and

Victorian lockets with a variety of colored gemstones, sometimes creating pretty scenes. Also very popular are Victorian heart lockets, pavé set with split pearls. These sometimes center an Old European diamond.”

In terms of locket shapes, Brandt notes that “Victorian ones seem to be oval while Art Nouveau lockets were rounder and smaller.” Heart shapes, she points out, were very popular at the turn of the twentieth century. “A lot of them were repoussé with a design of flowers and leaves. And some of them just have an old mine cut diamond in the center. A lot of large silver hearts were popular, more as picture lockets than memorial lockets.”

A Broad Appeal

Larger lockets, Brandt says, are very desirable to her customers; “the bigger, the better. What I’m selling mostly are the oval Victorian lockets, either with a big moonstone or decorated with little rose cut diamonds, horseshoe motifs.”

And, of course, there’s always the appeal of something different. “I just got a Japanese Shakudo locket, which is very unusual,” Brandt says. “It’s mixed metals. It’s very difficult to solder one metal to another, it’s really an art and the Japanese were very good at taking bronze and making a marriage to, let’s say, gold or silver. A lot of the Shakudo pieces were actually decorations on Japanese swords or for tobacco pouches and were later made into pieces of jewelry.”

Stockhammer sees demand for “the rock crystal, very plain, thick lockets — some are ovals, some are hearts, some round.” Martinez says the Victorian lockets she likes best are the ones that are appliquéd with multicolor gold.

“Sometimes the white metal on those lockets is actually early platinum work,” she says, “something you didn’t see much of before 1900.”

“People certainly want a locket to open so they can put in a picture or lock of hair or something like that,” Martinez says. And condition is very important, she adds. “Babies tended to chew on their mothers’ lockets in Victorian times, so there might be little teeth marks, which make them harder to sell.”

While most people are concerned with how big the locket’s compartment is, how thick it is and that the locket is pretty, sums up Stockhammer, “it’s also about whether it strikes a sentimental chord for them.”

One good thing about the fact that lockets have always been popular, explains Doyle, is that “many were made in the Victorian era and many survive, so if you are specifically looking for lockets, you can find them.” What is hard, she says, is to find the very special ones that are in good condition.

Martinez places the price range for a gold Victorian locket from $600 up to $3,000, unless you have an exquisite cameo or added value with diamonds. “I buy them whenever I can. I have a pretty good collection going, but if I didn’t pay attention, it could dwindle very quickly. I go out of my way to look for lockets.”

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Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2010. To subscribe click here.

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