Handsome 1860s into 1870s hairwork watch or vest chain features a fancy cable twist braid, chased gold mounts, and a serpentine hook that reflects the snake-as-eternal love symbolism so typical of Victorian jewelry.
The gracefully curved hook, jeweler-tested as 14K gold, is embossed with coils and tiny roses, and appears to emerge from the cupped leaves or petals at its base. The other mounts are rolled gold, with the hexagonal end caps and center mount (with fob loop) chased on every other facet in a scrolling pattern. Photo #3 shows closeups of how the swivel clasp opens so that a pocket watch can be attached to it.
While some watch chain hooks of this period depicted snakes quite literally—rising, arching, and then coiling down over themselves, with their head and tails nearly meeting, ouroborus-like—others, like this one, offered stylized representations of the same image. The snake’s popularity as a mid- to late-19th century jewelry motif got its kick start with the emerald-headed serpent engagement ring Queen Victoria received from Prince Albert.
Photo #6 shows three images from Mark Campbell’s 1867 manual, “The Self Instructor in the Art of Hairwork”: Of the braiding table at which a hairworker sat; of a selection of hairwork chains fitted with both literal and stylized snake hooks; and of a hair-weave pattern similar to the one used in the example being offered here.
Though hairwork sentimental jewelry first appeared in the early 1800s, by the 1850s it had become a favorite parlor pastime, like needlework or lace-making. Hairwork watch chains, like smoking caps, were a popular gift for women to give to their husbands. A completed chain could be taken to a local jeweler to be fitted with gold mounts, or sent to one in a bigger city nearby. Eventually, both jewelers and mail catalogs offered ready-made hairwork chains, or else a woman could simply send her untreated hair out and receive a finished product in the mail.
Measuring 14” long and 1/4” in diameter, this Albert-style hairwork chain is in very good condition, with a touch of fuzziness (loose hairs that need trimming) in 3 spots—1/2” from the hook one on end, and 1” and 2” from the swivel clasp, on the other (photo #7).
Proud Member of the VFG Vintage Fashion Guild