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Love Tokens: Pretty Vintage Lockets

Source: Martha Stewart Living, February 2011


What's more romantic than wearing a sweet reminder of a loved one near your heart? Whether you're a collector, a gift-giver, or simply someone who likes to wear vintage jewelry in new ways, lockets have a personal appeal that makes them precious.

In their earliest form -- European designs date back at least to the 16th century -- these little pendants were about secrecy as much as romance. Wearers could hide not only feelings of love, but also good-luck charms, sayings, perfume (to combat the stink of the streets), and even poison.

Elizabethan lockets contained exquisite miniatures; in Georgian times, there was a vogue for painting a loved one's eye inside the pendant. Victorian mourning lockets held a portrait of the dear departed, ashes, a lock of hair, or pictures made from hair.

The Victorian era was also the heyday of locket design. Women in Europe and the United States wore the tokens on necklaces, on pins, or suspended from a chatelaine, which was a clasp or belt for holding household essentials -- keys, scissors and a thimble, a watch. The wealthier the woman, the larger and more elaborately crafted the locket.

These antiques, which collectors pay thousands of dollars for, are made of 18- to 24-karat gold. They are often studded with gemstones or cameos and engraved with ornate decorations and monograms. Inside they carry daguerreotypes or tintypes protected by glass.

As the 19th century ended, technology made it easier to mass-produce lockets in metals such as brass, copper, and steel. These more reasonably priced items might feature diamond chips rather than gems and were within the budget of style-conscious middle-class women.

By the mid-20th century, costume-jewelry lockets were commonplace. It was all the rage to wear charm bracelets sent from Europe by soldiers during World War II. Access to inexpensive silver from Mexico made silver lockets fashionable, too, whether worked in a filigreed Spanish style or, in the 1940s and '50s, styled as puffy hearts and worn in groups. In the '70s and '80s, lockets were coveted bridesmaids' gifts.

Nowadays, vintage lockets -- on eBay, at flea markets, or at jewelers -- are generally affordable. (Many of the lockets pictured are priced between $40 and $200.) Round or oval lockets are the most abundant, their shape adapted from designs for pocket watches. Hearts are popular because they convey their sentiment so prettily. The most unusual lockets are rectangular and look like cigarette cases or powder compacts.

Since lockets have little room for identifying marks, dealers estimate their age and value according to the quality of workmanship. Antique lockets, even small ones, feel solid. Newer lockets tend to feel less substantial; their designs are usually stamped or sandblasted on.

And of course, there are brand-new lockets on the market. Tami Romero, a photo-jewelry designer in Greenwich, Connecticut, makes her sterling silver and 14-karat-gold lockets by hand but incorporates modern technology into the process. "People upload and send me photos from anywhere in the world. I can manipulate the color, images, sizing, and shape," Romero says. She then sets the photos in lockets and dog-tag-style pendants. Customers wear them as necklaces, just as they did 150 years ago, bringing new life to a beloved tradition.

Close to the Heart

Heart-shaped lockets are easy to love, whether they're vintage or antique. Most have no identifying marks to establish their age, but there are some clues: Valuable lockets from the mid-19th century often have dense, hand-engraved monograms and flourishes and show meticulous attention to detail in the hinge and bail (the loop of metal for the chain). 

Ravishing Curves

Circular and oval lockets lend themselves to elaborate decoration, such as repousse, a technique in which a design is hammered out from the reverse side. The earlier the locket, the larger and more ornate it will be. Polished glass or crystal lockets are rare and highly sought after; sometimes they magnify the objects of affection inside.

Like an Open Book

Collectors love the clean lines of rectangular lockets and the different ways they open. Some have multiple "pages" for pictures. Another locket has a sliding drawer. Most of these lockets are not dated but likely represent a mix of eras, including late Victorian, late Edwardian, and early Art Deco.

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