We’re always pleased when jewelry reveals some of it secrets through hallmarks, maker’s marks and engraved details. However, some jewelry are meant to keep secrets; artisans have built compartments to protect the wearer’s valuables and tokens of significance, and encase them in some seriously fabulous materials.
Fashionable and functional in the 19th century, “Coach covers” are attachable orbs that cloaked valuable earrings to protect the wearer in transit (we assume from villainous highwaymen). Once the wearer arrived at her destination, she could remove the covers and let her diamonds out.
Jewelry that incorporated a loved one’s hair became popular in the seventeenth century and remained in fashion until the end of the nineteenth century. Pieces could be given as both a sentimental gesture (Queen Victoria gave hair jewelry throughout her life) or included as part of mourning jewelry to further personalize the token of remembrance. Jewelry with a glass plate built in, as well as some daintier antique lockets, most likely held beautifully woven hair; period jewelers were skilled at braiding and working it into compartments of brooches, pendants and rings.
Small ring compartments may have held other secrets besides hair. Rings crafted with a small lidded compartment for herbs, or something more sinister, are mentioned in ancient texts. Famous locket ring wearers included Elizabeth I and members of the powerful Borgia family. The ring’s use in fictional and real life drama buoyed their popularity in the 16th through 19th centuries.
Larger locket pendants became fashionable c. 1860-1880, coinciding with increasing availability of portrait photography – for the first time, images could be created and mounted into jewelry that didn’t require the skill of a miniature portrait painter. Today, with the help of image resizing, we can put pictures into those small jewelry compartments so they may once again hold treasured mementos.