Lockets evolved from ancient amulets and really became popular in the Elizabethan era. Elizabeth I wore a locket ring, containing her own portait and that of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was in the habit of giving jewel encrusted lockets to the likes of Francis Drake and others of her favourites. Mary Queen of Scots is supposed to have presented her servant with her locket on the eve of her execution – it is known as the Penicuik locket and is now in the Scottish National Museum. The images in antique lockets were hand painted by the leading artists of the day and could only have been afforded by the wealthy.
While we often imagine the antique locket as a token between lovers, the 17th century brought another dimension. It was not uncommon for people to wear a concealed locket containing the image of Charles I, to signal opposition to Cromwell. In the following century the Jacobite supporters would wear hidden lockets of the young Pretender.
From the 1760s onward mourning lockets became fashionable. Inside you would often find human hair belonging to the deceased, woven into complex basket patterns and often containing gold thread and seed pearls. The heyday of the locket was the 19th century. One of Prince Albert’s gifts to Queen Victoria was an enamelled bracelet with eight coloured heart-shaped lockets, each containing a lock of her children’s hair. The fashion soon caught on and Victorian ladies wore their lockets on velvet ribbons or heavy gold chains. In the 1870s large lockets were the fashion, in silver or gold. Some were the size of matchboxes, while the children wore small heat shaped or round ones.
The advent of photography brought about a major change. As the young men were going off to fight in the Boer war, they were presenting their sweethearts with lockets containing a photograph of themselves as a momentum. Many lockets were now low grade and sold for a few shillings, meaning that they are not worth a great deal nowadays, other than sentimental value. However, lockets from that period with enamel decoration, stones or pearl adornments increase the value and they would fetch between £400 and £750.
The popularity and demand for lockets also meant that the leading jewellers of the day, Cartier, Faberge, Garrard and Alexs Falize also made them, and an antique locket made by any of them would fetch a big price. Heart lockets mounted with pave-set diamonds at the front and a solid dome of rock crystal at the back from the 1880s can fetch between £5,000 and £10,000. There are also ‘regard’ lockets, so called because the stones, ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond spell ‘regard’. They are very sought after and you would have to pay around £1,000 plus.
If a locket contains an image of a famous person it can command a high price. A plain locket brooch made for Queen Victoria to commemorate her favourite gillie, John Brown, was sold at Bonhams a while ago for £13,200. A locket containing Nelson’s and Lady Hamilton’s hair, made in 1798, the year their affair started fetched £44,000 last year – the estimate had been £5,000.
Antique lockets containing images of unknown people usually command more modest sums and it’s all down to personal taste.