Lockets have been around for centuries as secret compartments for mementoes of loved ones, but really they came to the forefront in the Victorian Period.
The Victorians were great sentimentalists and when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert tragically died at the age of just 42 in 1861 Britain was plunged into sadness. Memorial or Mourning Jewellery became de-rigueur and lockets were the perfect piece of jewellery to carry the memories of loved ones in the form of a lock of plaited hair or a photo.
Left: A Victorian 18ct Gold Locket decorated with a real pearl starburst.
Materials such as carved Jet (fossilised wood) or Vulcanite (a hardened & polished form of black rubber) were popular mediums for lockets as black jewellery was in keeping with a nation in mourning and also high fashion.
In the 1860’s the US Nevada silver mines were discovered making silver cheap and plentiful and by the 1870’s silver jewellery was all over Europe. Large silver lockets hung from flat link “book” chains. Many were engraved in the Aesthetic manner, a movement whose influences came from Japanese art. Lockets were engraved with “Japonism” themes and patterns such as Willow, Cranes and other birds.
Of course the most popular of all materials was gold, usually in 9ct, 15ct and 18ct.
What does 9ct Back & Front mean?
Around 1880, the fashion for lockets reached a peak and they were being manufactured in their thousands. A huge number were termed or stamped 9ct B & F or 9ct Back & Front or just Gold Back & Front. There is some confusion in the market place as to what this means – many wrongly assume that these lockets are just rolled gold or gold plated when in fact they are not. I’ll explain in more detail…………
In the late Victorian & indeed Edwardian period, lockets were manufactured with solid gold fronts and solid gold backs – to clarify, the metal at the front is a sheet of solid gold and the metal at the back is also a sheet of solid gold. Using this method allowed heavy engraving which would not be possible on rolled gold or gold plating.
The sides, hinges and sometimes the loose frames inside are usually made of a sturdy base metal that has been gold plated.
Above: A 9ct Rose Gold Back & Front Locket showing a Typical 9ct BK & FT Mark
The reasoning behind such construction is that gold is a soft metal and lockets by default are opened and closed regularly. Using a sturdier metal than gold meant that they were less likely to buckle or break.
Of course this method also made then cheaper to manufacture!
On the plus side, these lockets ARE 90 – 95% solid gold and in the parts that are not they are gold plated and the plating is generally of such a good thickness / quality that it still stands 100 years later.
Engraving was the most popular form of decoration by far during the Victorian period. The late Victorians liked to engrave every possible surface and thousands of skilled workers were employed to carry out this beautiful and intricate form of decoration. There are some very beautiful examples in the form of lockets.
Above: A Victorian gold locket beautifully engraved with a Squirrel
Earlier lockets are literally “carved” by hand using a hand held graver or burin tool, much like a wood carvers chisel but smaller. Of varying shapes and names like spitsticker, lozenge or onglette Gravers carved out mainly patterns, foliage, or scrollwork. Sometimes there are unusual subjects like the beautiful Squirrel pictured right.
Many were inlaid with enamel or set with gemstones or paste (coloured glass). The Victorians were Romantics and used hidden love symbols in their Jewellery either in form or decoration. Plants and flowers were popular symbols, Roses for happiness and love, Ivy for friendship and strength, Pansies for keeping in ones thoughts and forget-me-knots are just a few.
Above: An Art Deco gold locket set with Rubies & Diamonds
How to insert a photograph into an Antique locket
Inside the locket there is usually an inner frame or surround on each side (although sometimes they may be only on one side). These can be carefully lifted out with the blade of a craft knife (ask a jeweller if you are not confident). Sometimes there is also a “glass” to protect the photo, most often this is a clear piece of celluloid plastic (you may be surprised to know this “plastic” was around in the Victorian period!) – put this to one side for now, but don’t worry if this part is missing right now.
Lay the metal inner frame onto your photo and position it so that the part of the photograph you want to see is centred in the frame. Use the frame as a template to size it and draw firmly around the outside edge of your photograph with a fine pen / biro. Next, using a pair of small nail scissors or craft knife, cut around the edge of the photograph. To make sure the photograph sits flat and does not sink into the concave hollow of the locket, pack behind it with some folded acid free tissue paper or natural cotton until it is just short of flush with the top of the locket frame.
Place the photo onto the packing making sure you have it the correct way up and then place the clear “glass” / celluloid over the top. Finally, put the inner frame over the clear glass / celluloid and push it into place. If it doesn’t click into place try running the blade of your craft knife between the inner frame and outer frame, sliding it in as you go and that should do it.
It is common to find missing parts inside lockets but dont worry. If your inner frame is missing there is usually a ridge on the under side of the locket that your picture can be tucked under, if not use a “glue dot” to secure your photo t othe locket. If your “glass” or celluloid is cracked or discoloured this can easily be replaced with modern clear Acetate. This is inexpensive and readily available. I find the best source is A4 sheets of clear page dividers for punch files. You can even use clear hard plastic packaging like that used on candles etc. Cut to size using the same method as for your photo.
I hope you like my guide – add me as a favourite as I will be frequently adding to these guides on Antique Jewellery.
©Ruby and Jules Antique Jewellery