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Jewelry Styled From Hair : Carmelita Johnson's collection of 200 pieces made from human 'threads' has piqued curiosity.

August 13, 1993|YOLANDA FINTOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty-five years ago while browsing through an antiques store, Carmelita Johnson peered into a dusty jewelry case and asked to see a ring that appeared to be encircled with brown thread. On closer examination, she saw that the "threads" were actually human hair.

The ring had the year 1849 inscribed inside a gold band. Outside the band, the hair formed a braided design. Johnson wondered about the person who had had the ring inscribed: What was the occasion for the remembrance? Whose hair was used as ornamentation?

Johnson's curiosity was piqued. But little did she know that her interest would lead to a lifelong pastime, recognition as an authority on an obscure but fascinating art and a collection that now numbers more than 200 pieces.

When Johnson first set out to learn more about hair jewelry, she found little information. Her collection was growing, but few of the pieces came with documentation.

By the mid-1970s, she initiated some serious research. She haunted antiques shops, as well as museums and art galleries. Librarians and knowledgeable antiques dealers became her main sources of information.

And along the way, in addition to jewelry, she also acquired framed pictures of flowered wreaths fashioned out of hair. Thin wire or horsehair was used to form the composition; the human hair was then looped around the wire into shapes of stems, petals and leaves. Johnson's largest picture is set in a deep shadow box frame that measures 28 by 35 inches.

Through diligent searching, reading and questioning, Johnson, 68, of Reseda learned that the practice of making hair jewelry and pictures began in the 1600s. The first written comment that she found was about a mourning ring made for King Charles II of England. There is evidence that this form of jewelry was popular in England, Central Europe, the Nordic countries and America, where it was widely practiced until the early 20th Century.

"Though magazines of the Victorian era carried advertisements from jewelers who offered to custom-design brooches or pins, many people made their own. Superstition prevented some from allowing objects as intimate as hair to get into the 'wrong hands,' such as those of witches," Johnson says. "The belief that human hair could be used to cast spells was prevalent in those days."

Some objects tell a story. "My favorite piece is a brooch with hair designed to look like a sheaf of wheat. On one of my antique treks, I saw a brooch identical to mine except that the ends of four stalks were bent down. This brooch came with a letter from the woman who made it. The letter explained that those stalks represented her four dead children."

Ornamental hair works are full of symbolism and fall into two categories: some depict sentimentality and are love pieces in which designs of flowers and birds are used; others are mourning selections. This latter group incorporates weeping willows, mourning doves and headstones in its design. Johnson's oldest piece, a willow ring, falls into this group and dates to 1783.

"While most people are as fascinated as I about this arcane art form, I do have friends who won't look at it. They consider use of human hair for ornamentation as macabre," Johnson says.

Johnson's hobby gained the attention of Carol Elkins, an appraiser for Sotheby's auction house, in Los Angeles when Johnson and Elkins attended a class called "Wearing and Displaying Collectibles." Elkins was curious about Johnson's collection and asked to see it.

"This is an extremely diverse collection in that it is broadly representative of this genre of jewelry," Elkins said. Elkins was so impressed that she asked Elizabeth Cook, an appraiser at Butterfield & Butterfield, to examine the collection.

"It was exciting to see this one-of-a-kind assemblage of hair art. I find it remarkable that every piece is in such good condition," Cook said.

Johnson has never had her collection appraised and says it's difficult to assign a value to it, given its uniqueness.

By 1980, Johnson was satisfied that she had enough material to write a book. The book, "Ornamental Hair Works," is an objet d'art in itself. For the edition, self-published in 1981, the type was hand-set and each book was hand-bound by Johnson and a friend who owned a small press. Photographs of selected pieces are included.

Her limited edition of 126 books sold out quickly. A copy was placed in the Special Collections section of the library at Cal State Northridge. Curator Tony Gardner said Johnson's book meets at least three of the six criteria for being placed in Special Collections.

"Her book is a limited edition (300 copies or less); it is one of a kind; to shelve the book would damage it. To handle it, you would need to be a researcher or belong to an historical society."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art also has a copy of "Ornamental Hair Works." Dale Gluckman, associate curator of the costume and textile department, says the book is in the library of the Doris Stein Research and Design Center.

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