Relics, Portraits, Ashes & Poison: A Brief History of The Locket

  • Published
  • March 17, 2015

A fictional locket plays a key role in the Harry Potter series. You won’t like what’s inside this one…
Luv Lockits is one of the newest FS Local Experts and their line of modern lockets reflect the tradition of sacred keepsakes. To introduce our new friends, we thought we’d put together a brief history of the locket itself.

A Brief History of The Locket

Love, as they say, is a many-splendored thing, and the burning desire to demonstrate that love, to keep it close, to share and give it, has resulted in a rich tapestry of symbolic gestures.

Poems, songs, tattoos, acts of chivalry, acts of madness – people in love make and do all sorts of crazy things. And for centuries, men and women in love – or in mourning – have used the locket to hold a symbol of their strongest feelings close to them, to make their joy or pain physical. To keep it close by at all times. Given as a gift, there’s nothing more personal.

The Hockley Pendant. The world's oldest example, found in a field by a 4-year old.
The Hockley Pendant. From the 1500’s, it probably held a holy relic. Found by a child, now in the British Museum.

Worn proudly displayed at the neck as a banner of a beloved, discretely at the wrist or tucked away in folds of clothing hiding a dangerous secret, each locket contained a relic just as sacred to the wearer as anything found in a church.

Elizabeth 1 and her locket, the Chequers Ring. Inside is a portrait of her mother, Anne Boleyn.
Elizabeth 1 and her locket, the Chequers Ring. Inside is a portrait of her mother, Anne Boleyn.

As far back as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), lockets were used to hold cherished keepsakes. The Queen made them fashionable by giving them as gifts, each with a small, painted portrait of herself inside. Her own ring featured a portrait of her dear mother Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, and it’s said that, along with her coronation ring, the locket is the only piece of jewelry the Queen never took off. Indeed, the secret portraits within were only discovered when the ring was removed from Elizabeth’s finger at her death.

Over the centuries, the contents of lockets changed depending on the times. When personal hygeine was…inconvenient, and personal odor was more pronounced, it became popular to place a perfumed cushion in a locket and wear it as an early deodorant. Religious (and wealthy) folk would touch a piece of cloth to a holy relic and put the cloth in a locket as a symbol of their piety. For some, a powered poison was kept close by – one never knew when one might need a hasty exit.

image of queen victoria's lockets
L: Queen Victoria’s first locket, given on her 1st birthday. R: an eye portrait of the Queen’s daughter (also Victoria)

It was another Queen, Victoria this time, who re-popularized the wearing lockets. On her first birthday, Victoria was given a locket by her mother and over the course of her life gave and received many. When her beloved Prince Albert died, the love her life, the distraught Queen wore a lock of his hair inside her locket. People everywhere began to do the same, sometimes even carrying around a sprinkle of the dearly-departed’s ashes. “Mourning Lockets” became a macabre and beautiful trend.

By the end of Victoria’s reign, photography had become more accessible to the masses and caused another great leap in locket trends. Placing a photo of one’s sweetheart inside a locket became the fashion and by World War I (1914-1918), their popularity exploded. Lockets were cheap to produce, and as millions of soldiers marched off to war, they left behind a picture of themselves for their sweethearts to gaze at longingly.

Two 19th Century lockets. On the left is a baby picture and a lock of hair. The right commemorates a lost love one.

Today marks another resurgence in the popularity of lockets. Vintage examples, like those shown above, command high prices in auctions and online, and new styles are widely available. Many feature glass fronts so what’s inside is always visible without having to open and close the locket, and the contents vary widely. Some prefer the traditional photo while personalized charms are very popular.

image of modern lockets
Modern lockets: Heart and Round lockets from LuvLockits, with My Family backplate and a selection of charms.

With a history spanning hundreds of years and surging contemporary popularity, the locket remains one of our favourite pieces of jewelry. At times romantic, sad, touching and beautiful, the locket is a versatile and lovely gift for people of all ages.

Content Manager at FS Local

Jesse is a typical class clown. Born and raised just north of the Toronto, he fell in love with the City on school trips to the ROM and the Science Centre. He tried Vancouver for a few years, but the call of home was too strong to resist. Today he lives in the North-East Upper Beaches. (What? It’s a thing!)

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