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Olympia silversmith makes mourning jewelry with hair, teeth, and ashes

A pendant Angela Kirkpatrick made, that includes a hair from her grandmother under the stone. (Photo courtesy of Angela Kirkpatrick)

Olympia’s Angela Kirkpatrick is a jewelry maker with a very specific niche.

“I’m a silversmith and I make jewelry with the hair, ashes and teeth of dead and living people and pets.”

She doesn’t need much. A hair or two or a pinch of ash will do.

“I have a silversmithing studio in my house,” she said. “So I make the settings and the hair goes in the setting underneath the quartz stone in the Victorian fashion. So you can’t actually touch the hair, it’s preserved beneath the quartz stone. I also work with a hair artist named Charlotte Scott who does palette work. Palette work, in the French tradition, is taking the hair and making tiny pictures with it. So the pendant I have here has my son’s hair, but it’s in the shape of a honeybee. Most people wouldn’t realize it was a bee made of hair unless I was telling them it was made of hair.”

Kirkpatrick showed me a quartz ring that has a single hair from her grandmother embedded under the stone. Her grandfather kept all of her brushes after she passed. But there are other ways to get an artifact.

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“It’s something you can ask a funeral director to do,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not uncommon to ask for a lock of hair, it used to be something done very regularly. I’ve gotten hair from crematories and funeral homes. Usually people are pretty shaken up when they’re dealing with death so the funeral director would take care of mailing the hair to me.”

Mourning jewelry

The pieces are traditionally called mourning jewelry. The tradition goes back to the Victorian era.

“It was pretty common, especially in the states after the Civil War,” Kirkpatrick said. “Mortality rates were really high. We didn’t know much about germs and diseases and people died really young, infant mortality rates were really high. It was a home craft done by women. It wouldn’t be uncommon to make hair work of a living person, just keeping in mind that they might not be around later.”

Kirkpatrick talks about a mourning jewelry piece she’s making for a new client.

“I was approached by a woman who had just lost her grandmother who was born in the 20s. She not only had me set her ashes, but she had a multicolored piece of yarn she wanted me to set underneath the stone of the ring. Because when she was a little kid, her grandmother picked her up from school sometimes. One day her grandmother got a new car that she didn’t recognize. It caused a mini panic attack for this wee person. Afterward, her grandmother tied the piece of yarn to the antennae so that she would always know where her grandmother was after school. So that was really special. They were really close.”

Weirded out by mortality

Kirkpatrick works with about 40 clients at a time, walking them through custom designs and since they are such emotional pieces, sometimes acting like a grief counselor. But, of course, a lot of people think her career is just plain weird.

“I think people get weirded out because people have a really hard time in our culture discussing or acknowledging our mortality,” she said. “That’s something I think about a lot. Being part of the death positive movement is acknowledging that everyone dies some day and living your life in a more active, involved way with that information.”

But for those who have had mourning jewelry made, having a piece of their deceased friend, relative or pet against their skin is very special.

“Most people want to wear it everyday,” she said. “I’ve had to have some hard conversations with people about not doing karate with your ring on and not going scuba diving in the ocean with your ring on and not showering with your jewelry.”

Kirkpatrick is a member of the Order of the Good Death. She also leads the monthly Death Cafe meeting in Olympia, which is an international event that encourages people to get together over tea and cake to talk about death.

To inquire about the jewelry, click here.

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