Previously I talked a little about 19th century jewellery: this post is about mourning jewellery, which fascinates me. Why? Well, some of it's beautiful, though some isn't, but more than that I wonder why people felt the need to advertise, through the act of wearing specific jewellery and clothing, the fact that they were suffering the loss of a loved one. Was it simply because that's what society said you did then? Did it confer upon the bereaved a special public status? Or was it just what you spent your money on if you had plenty? Because, as far as I can see through researching the topic, really poor people didn't own much mourning jewellery, if any, and neither did they deliberately dress in black or purple clothing. They seem to have just got on with it.
It wasn't just the 'sentimental Victorians' (whom I suspect weren't, at times, that sentimental at all) who favoured mourning jewellery, as is commonly thought - people have been doing it for several thousand years. During the 16th century it became fashionable to wear memento mori (which means 'remember you must die') jewellery, featuring skull, coffin, crossbone and similar motifs.
|Memento mori ring with skull under rock crystal|
As jewellery-making techniques and fashions changed, mourning jewellery became more elaborate - depending on what you could afford to pay for it, of course. Mourning brooches and rings were made with diamonds and other precious gems, the urn motif became popular, as did tiny enamelled or painted mourning scenes.
Hair of the deceased was often incorporated into mourning jewellery - plaited under rock crystal in rings and brooches, or curled into lockets. But human hair was commonly used in jewellery in the past - you didn't have to be dead to have bits of your barnet made into earrings or a watch chain.
|Gold and human hair earrings|
And now to the Victorians, who were heavily influenced by Queen Victoria's example after her husband Prince Albert died in 1861. Discouraged from wearing jewellery while in mourning because it was deemed too frivolous, they got around that by piling on black jewels, usually made from jet (which is compact black lignite, ie. coal), onyx, black glass (aka French jet) or black enamel. As the mourning period wore on, the bereaved could graduate to cut steel, Berlin iron, ivory and tortoiseshell.
In the latter half of the 19th century, people with shallow purses could purchase machine-made, lesser quality mourning jewellery, and brooches, earrings and pins moulded from vulcanite (an early manufactured rubber) or gutta percha, aka ebonite (a natural latex), though both materials tended to go brown and lose their gloss over time.
Occasionally, particularly on the internet, you'll see black onyx art deco rings - often with a diamond set in the middle of the onyx - advertised as mourning rings. They aren't. This was a common and popular art deco style, and not related to mourning. Also, if you're considering purchasing one, there are loads of reproduction black onyx art deco rings floating around.