Mourning Jewelry: A Way to Honor a Loved One
Mourning, in the plainest terms, is grief over the death of someone. In our history, it has been customary that jewels and keepsakes be made for the loss of a loved one or someone close to the deceased, as a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death as well as a status symbol, especially during the Victorian era. These pieces are commonly referred to as mourning jewelry.
The early precursors to mourning jewelry, around the 17th century, displayed the skull and crossbones on a variety of pieces. Memento mori (or “remember you will die”) was another early form of mourning jewelry, which showed the desecration of the body and symbols of the Christian afterlife. Shakespeare was even known to commission similar mourning rings with these images and symbols.
By the 19th century, mourning pieces were considered fashionable and it wasn’t uncommon to use a lock of someone’s hair in your jewelry piece. In fact, in the mid-19th century, 50 tons of hair a year was imported to jewelers in the U.K. for hairwork pieces. The practice of weaving hair into jewelry is both ancient and technical and many of England jewelers were considered world experts in the technique. Taking a lock of hair and weaving it into knot designs for use in a brooch was the most popular form of Victorian mourning jewelry.
New York Jeweler Erica Weiner (ericaweiner.com) says, “People started making mourning jewelry because there was no photography, and if your loved one died you wanted something as a touchstone to remember them every day.”
The mourning industry gained momentum after Prince Albert died in 1861. When he passed, his wife Queen Victoria only allowed mourning wear and jewelry in court, which in turn influenced the fashion and caused a type of jewelry revival. Queen Victoria remained in mourning until her passing in 1901 and it’s written that she wore a piece of jewelry made with Prince Albert’s hair every day after his death. (See an image of her to the left.)
Also with disease, childbirth and the harsh environment contributing to high mortality rates at the time, mourning was a dreary, dull aspect of life, but mourning jewelry allowed for loved ones to observe a period of grieving. Women in mourning and widows wore distinctive black caps and veils, generally in a conservative fashion.
In the U.S., the use of mourning jewelry increased with the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war as soldiers left home to join the fight, they would leave a lock of their hair with their families. Upon the soldier’s death, the hair was often made into a piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket.
Crystals and diamonds were probably the most common gems used in the creation of this jewelry. Jet, a hard, black coal-like material highly suitable for carving, was also regularly used. Jewelers found jet to be the perfect material for crafting large lockets, brooches, bracelets and necklaces. Less-expensive alternatives included black glass, black enamel, vulcanite (a hardened rubber,) and bog oak, which is more of a brown color but still dark enough to express somber sentiments.
“The choice of gems had to do with stages of mourning, which changed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the first period, people wore black and hairwork. In the second period, they could introduce a little bit of color like purple,” says historian and art director Hayden Peters. (Quote from Hayden Peters Talks About Skulls, Hairwork and The Culture of Mourning)
These jewelry pieces would include symbols such as skull and crossbones; death holding a scythe; an hourglass; angels with cherubs playing trumpets, among others. Inscriptions were popular like “in memory of” and “not lost but gone before.” The name, age, date of birth and death of the deceased were also inscribed on the pieces. In addition, miniature portraits of the deceased were often engraved as centerpieces for a ring, brooch or necklace.
By the end of the 19th century, attention had shifted away from the mourning industry. People were becoming tired of this once widespread trend. Then with the high mortality rate of World War I, people began to reconsider whether they really wanted to spend so much of their lives absorbed by death. Just before the war, the jewelry’s popularity was waning. After the war, the upswing you might expect in the mourning industry simply didn’t happen.
Today, mourning jewelry is still prevalent among collectors and antique enthusiasts, but it never regained the popularity among the mass public as it once had. However, it still marks a significant time in history we should both remember and observe.
For additional information on mourning jewelry, refer to the references below.
Hayden Peters Talks About Skulls, Hairwork and The Culture of Mourning
Art of Mourning
Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning