A locket is a piece of jewellery that opens to hold a precious memento such as a charm, lock of hair, or an image of a loved one inside. A locket can be a necklace, ring or bracelet. We mostly wear them on a chain around our neck, near our hearts.
Lockets were even used to hold perfume and, at some point, were used to contain poison!
Traditionally, people would give lockets as gifts on Valentine’s Day, for birthdays, at christenings and weddings,and, from the time of Queen Victoria, were given for funerals.
The History of Lockets
People have worn lockets as jewellery since ancient times and they were worn frequently as jewellery from the 16th century onwards. The could have a birthstone or other gemstone set on the front or be engraved.
More recently, we’ve seen glass-fronted lockets which hold treasured symbols of meaning and significance.
In this article, we look at the use of locket jewellery, how its meaning and significance have changed over the years. We will also look at some fascinating and famous lockets.
The Definition A Locket
The meaning of a locket, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a small case, usually of precious metal, that has space for a memento and that is worn typically suspended from a chain or necklace”.
The Middle English word ‘locket’ derives from the Old French ‘locquet’. This came from the German word ‘loc’ meaning latch or lock. Hence, the design of a locket was to hold something precious inside it, enclosed with a latch or lock.
The Earliest Uses of Lockets
In ancient times, lockets were amulets and held lucky charms and good-luck keepsakes.
For centuries, people believed foul odours carried disease and pestilence. By carrying a scented cloth, people believed it helped ward off these harmful smells. Perfume-soaked cloth, placed inside filigree lockets, could be used when mixing with others.
Sometimes even Opium mixed with other substances was carried by people as they believed it to be helpful against the plague.
In the Middle Ages, ‘Poison Rings’ contained a capsule that could hold elixirs or poison. An enemy could be slipped a lethal dose of poison as their drink was being poured.
Lockets Worn By Royal Figures in History
Just like famous figures today, famous figures of the past, most notably royalty and noblemen, influenced fashion enormously.
Queen Elizabeth I (whose reign lasted between 1558-1603) loved lockets. She wore a mother-of-pearl and gold locket ring set with rubies with an ‘E’ initial set with six diamonds over a blue enamel letter R. The locket opened to contain two portraits, one of her mother Anne Boleyn, executed when Elizabeth was three, and the other of herself. She wore this ring every day until they removed it from her on her death.
Elizabeth so loved lockets that she often gifted a locket holding her image to those closest.
Her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, carried the famous ‘Penicuik locket’. This held a portrait of herself and her son, James. Made of enamel, the locket had fourteen gold beads, each holding perfume. On the eve of her execution, Mary gave the locket to a faithful companion of hers.
After yet another execution, that of Charles I in 1649, for many years his supporters carried miniature portraits of him inside a locket. This began a shift in the wearing of lockets. They started holding images of those that were being grieved for after death. Because people couldn’t uncover their love and admiration for the King, his portrait had to be hidden. Suddenly, covered lockets became the thing.
In 1783, Prince Edward, the then Prince of Wales, fell in love with a ‘commoner’, a twice-widowed Catholic lady called Maria Fitzherbert. During their affair, which was frowned upon, he gifted her a locket. To protect his identity, he had only his eye painted inside the locket, rather than his portrait. When they later married, they had “Lover’s Eye” lockets made for each other, starting a fashion in Lover’s Eye lockets.
Eye of Maria Miles Heyward Source: Edward Greene Malbone, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons MET DP218200, CC0 1.0
Another famous royal, Queen Victoria, also changed the fashion regarding locket-wearing. Her beloved husband, Prince Albert, gifted her a bracelet that held no less than eight lockets, each containing a lock of one of their children’s hair. The Queen wore this bracelet every day.
When her Prince died, Queen Victoria famously went into permanent mourning and wore black for the rest of her life. She commissioned a locket to be made, which contained a photograph of her beloved husband. This started a theme of mourning lockets.
You can still find many antique Mourning Lockets in antique shops today. They often made them with black bog oak, a dark brown-black wood-like substance. The locket would hold a portrait or some woven hair from the dead relative.
In the Second World War, soldiers gifted their love a locket as a symbol of love. Photography had been developed by then, making it easier to place a picture of a loved one inside. Because of the mass appeal of these love lockets, with the scarcity of metals and skills, these lockets were often mass-produced. The resulting quality was sometimes lacking.
We’ve seen rise to two-tone lockets – like the silver and Welsh gold one above – as well as the more traditional single metal variety.
In more recent years, glass-fronted lockets have been used to hold special charms of significance, like birthstones or initials or beautiful dried flowers. These charms are on display and show the world what is important to the wearer.
In recent years, we have seen the development of incorporating a deceased loved ones ashes into jewellery. The ashes are often mixed with colours in the jewellery. Many companies now specialise in turning ashes into jewellery.
Other memorial jewellery features a chamber within the jewellery. A small amount of the deceased loved one’s ashes can be poured inside via an opening in the jewellery. Many are doing this with the ashes of a beloved pet. This memorial jewellery enables us to carry a loved one who has passed with us, always.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this fascinating insight into how the history of lockets has shown their change of use and meaning over centuries. The wonderful thing now is that that can be used for any of the past uses – in celebration, in remembrance, as a gift token, a love token or to keep a deceased love one close.
A locket is a most versatile and meaningful item of jewellery.