Saturday, June 23, 2018

Souvenir Saturday: DNA and Hair Jewellery

Intricately arranged bands of light and dark human hair in the simple locket above show that the
wearer is remembering a departed loved one. Though the notion of mourning jewellery dates back to the medieval era, it was during the Victorian age that memento mori ('remember death') reached its greatest popularity and production. Queen Victoria herself may have started the trend after the tragic loss of her husband, Prince Albert, when he was only 42. She resolved to wear black for the rest of her life.

Initially for the upper classes, remembrance pieces made out of the hair of the deceased gradually became popular and being less expensive than mourning jewellery made of jet (a shiny black gemstone) or other materials were more within the reach of the ordinary person. 

A family historian such as myself, on finding such a treasure among inherited memorabilia, would wonder what the hair could tell of the ancestor on whose head it originally grew. Unfortunately, the answer is 'Nothing', apart from an indication of hair colour or how fine or thick the hair might once have been. DNA cannot be extracted from hair found in a locket.

This is because hair is not formed from cells but from keratin.The same is true of fingernails.
DNA only exists in a cell. The nucleus of the cell has the organism's cellular DNA. It might be possible to extract DNA from the follicle cellular remains if the hair has fallen off or been torn out - root cells may then be present and these could be tested for DNA. Hair incorporated into mourning jewellery has generally been cut from the head and has no follicle left attached.

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