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Jakob Schiess, hair-weaver: “I have a connection with every braid”

There are only a handful of hair-weavers left in Switzerland, and Helvetia employee Jakob Schiess is one of them. He turns hair into jewellery. In this video portrait he tells us what led him to this unusual craft.

11 March 2014, text: Isabella Awad, photos and video: Katrin Meier

“I have around a hundred braids packed away and preserved”, says Jakob Schiess. “And there’s a story behind every one of them.” Almost by way of proof, he carefully unwraps a splendid dark-blond braid from tissue paper and places it in front of him on the living-room table. “This braid is about 80 years old. It came from a woman I know well, who grew it when she was younger.”

It’s grandma’s fault

When Jakob was at school, his grandmother gave him his grandfather’s watch chain. It was woven from the hair of a relative embedded in red gold. It was a piece of jewellery that remained hidden for a long time – before he picked it up again seven years ago. At the time Jakob Schiess was looking for a hobby that he could practice from his wheelchair. Previously he had enjoyed practising old Appenzell customs – but this was no longer possible after he was injured in a traffic accident 16 years ago. At that point it became clear to him: “I want to learn how to weave jewellery from hair”. The fact that there is a woman who practises the craft in Appenzell was a stroke of luck. That was now seven years ago.

Hair is not just hair

“I can work with almost any hair”, says Jakob Schiess. Human hair, horse hair, cow hair – and even goat hair. Every now and again he receives a package containing a braid and a letter. “I like to know whose hair I am weaving. It’s even nicer if I know that person”, he says. To make a piece of jewellery though, he doesn’t need a full braid, just a small clump of hair will do. Nevertheless, the hair must be at least 20 centimetres long for him to be able to weave it well. The hair shouldn’t be treated or coloured and it’s important that it’s not bleached.

“Äächeli” and “Blööschteli”

The hair-artist’s repertoire includes rings, necklaces, bracelets and brooches. Alongside modern creations, he returns to traditional Appenzell costume decoration time and again. One example is the famous “Äächeli”, which are earrings in the form of an acorn – a symbol of fertility. Another is the “Blööschteli”, which are teardrop-shaped pendants.

Most customers bring their own hair with them, or that of their daughters or mothers. Hence the work on a piece of jewellery is always very emotional too: there was one man who had a ring woven from the hair of his daughters and his wife. One customer had a necklace woven from her hair combined with that of her late sister. “There are customers who come with a clear idea of what they want, while others get inspiration from a consultation”, says Jakob Schiess. Depending on the piece of jewellery, I then pick a suitable weave pattern. The finished weave is boiled in distilled water so that it will maintain its shape forever. The silver or gold parts are made by a specialist. Afterwards, Jakob Schiess combines the hair and the precious metal to make one piece. When, after many hours of work, he hands over the piece of jewellery to its wearer, he finds he is frequently looking into eyes misty with tears.

Momentan seien Ringe im Trend, sagt Jakob Schiess – schön natürlich, wenn man einen Bezug hat zum Haar, das verarbeitet wird.

With a lock of hair and a Bible

Hair-weaving is part of Central European craftsmanship and culture. Under Queen Victoria in the eighteenth century, finely worked hair was as valuable as gold and silver. Many men gave their beloveds a lock of hair, and a lock of hair and a Bible were considered sufficient as a betrothal gift at the time. You can find out more about hair-weaving and its history at www.schmuckaushaaren.ch.

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