Category Archives: Victorian Hair Combs

Victorian Ivory Combs in the 1860’s

As love’s fire became firelight, Mary E. wrote on the inside of her comb box, “This is for Carrie M. Golches. Mary E [last name].” Another’s pen added, “She passed away about 1923, age 91.” The script is American; the comb was probably a gift, brought over from England.


An intricate design of berries and leaves surround a medallion with two bunches of grapes, over a comb of finely carved teeth, c. 1860. The design’s finesse immediately tells you it was made for a woman of privilege, sheltered from the awareness of poverty.



The Victorian Age was an apex in English comb making. Comb makers arrived in London from France to take advantage of higher wages and a steady market. However, it was also the age of Dickens’ Great Expectations. He and other authors revealed the humiliation, Industrial-Age child labor, and hunger of the poor.

In tracing the connections to how Mary E. got her comb, one cannot ignore upper-class indifference to what Prime Minister Disraeli described as “the two nations,” nor can one ignore Africa.

In the ivory trade, the problem was getting the 80- and 100-pound tusks from the killing grounds to coastal trading centers at Mombasa, Mozambique and Zanzibar. Merchant Michael W. Shepard wrote in 1844, “It is the custom to buy a tooth of ivory and a slave with it to carry it to the sea shore. Then the ivory and slaves are carried to Zanzibar and sold.”

Missionary Alfred J. Swann wrote in the 1880’s, “… Feet and shoulders were a mass of open sores, made more painful by the swarms of flies which followed the march and lived on the flowing blood. They presented a moving picture of utter misery,” noting also that they were covered with the scars of the “chikote,” a leather whip.

Much of the ivory was sent to its primary importation center, Dieppe, France, where it then came to England…

…and a young Mary E. accepted a gift from her true love, which she meticulously kept in its original box until the end of her life.



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Victorian Hair Pins

Whether the hairstyle was divided into three or more parts, some short, others long; or, the hair was complexly braided at the back, Victorian women adorned their chignons with tortoiseshell combs and pins.

On top of the pins were fantastic gold creations of griffins with ruby eyes, silver so delicately woven it looked like lace, and diamonds. Sometimes the tortoiseshell was carved into flowers and intricate designs, allowing the different colors of the natural material to shade the art like a painter would use his or her brush. Other times, they were capped with gold and silver crowns.

This pin hails from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two carved gold rings on top of a cap are set with diamonds, a sapphire and a ruby.

Carved gold tops decorate the cross shape of this dark tortoiseshell hair pin

Just as silver is delicately woven into lace with diamond dots in this hair pin,

so The Creative Museum‘s hair pin has a circular foliage-like silver design.

More complex caps could set off jewels, such as in this hair pin with aquamarines

and these griffins with ruby eyes.

Or, the setting could be invisible to set off a delicate spray of pearls.

Any way you look at them, jeweled Victorian tortoiseshell hair pins were made in an astonishing array of variations.


If you would like to buy an antique Victorian hair pin, I am confident in recommending these active E-Bay listings:


For more scholarly research, please see our Resource Library and these books:

Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria

The Comb: Its History and Development

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design

The Portland Tiara

This tiara was made by E. Wolff & Co. for Garrard, the crown jewelers since 1843. It was made c. 1889, shortly after the marriage of the 6th Duke of Portland.

Ivy, formerly the Marchioness of Titchfield, became the Duchess of Portland when she married the 7th Duke. There is a miniature portrait of her wearing this tiara, which required several pieces of family jewelry to be dismantled for its construction.

It has 12 graduated sapphire and diamond clusters, a diamond-set openwork frame, button-shaped pearl and diamond borders, and pear-shaped pear finials. Sale price: 763,650 GBP, or $1,188,239 on Dec. 1, 2010.

Some Lovely Things on Ebay

There have been some absolutely gorgeous things sold recently on ebay. A French silver and gold tiara with seed pearls, c. 1810, had rings in the back perhaps for a veil, and a few metal comb prongs in the back, too, to hold it in place. The seed-pearl microbeading reminds me of antique French purses.  It went for $1025. I must admit I cried because I didn’t win. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime finds for tiara lovers.

This beautiful plique a jour peacock comb with a seed pearl and art glass inserts had the DRGM mark. It stands for Deutsches Reich Gebrauchsmuster (German Reich Registered Design), and certifies that the piece was made before 1945. It sold for $1017.

Plique-a-jour is an enameling process. The enamel is laid between thin raised metal lines and heated. The finished piece has transparent enamel held between the thin metal wires. Making jewelry translucent followed the artistic movements of the day, as Tiffany’s favrile glass burned with light and painting became impressions of light.

Two French art nouveau horn hair pins with seed pearls sold at an Ebay Live Auction for $516.31. I don’t know for sure, but they looked like Louis Aucoc to me. What value is in a name? Here is a comparison between the hair pins and an Aucoc comb at the Tadema Gallery, listed in the 2500 to 5000 UKP range. Do we have a match?

This lovely French horn art nouveau comb went for $102.50. It was a modest, unsigned comb, but beautiful in its subtlety and shadow. I thought it was a fabulous buy.

This French horn comb with rhinestone beads and bats, c. 1910, went for $679.35 at an Ebay Live Auction on April 23.

This George Jensen comb, c. 1909-1914, went unsold at $4000. It was tortoise shell with sterling silver flowers and 5 red garnet stones.

Finally, here are three lovely kanzashi. The first has a beautiful arrangement of plum, bamboo, pine, tortoise and crane, Japanese symbols of luck. It sold for $283. The second has pine, plum, and sea bream. The tub implies purfication. c. late Edo to early Meiji. Price: $341.67. The third had coral blossoms on an ivory branch, and sold for $202.50.

Happy Collecting, Peeps!