Sunday, 9 December 2012

Jewellery for the Dead

What I'm Reading: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong; Started Early, Took My Dog, By Kate Atkinson; Bedlam: London and its mad by Catharine Arnold.

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
Rings in gold and/or black enamel, and rock crystal were common, as were pendants and brooches. By the 17th century these motifs were being incorporated into jewellery to commemorate actual deaths. You can still buy examples, particularly from the 18th century, but it commands hideous prices in antique jewellery shops, and there are fakes about, particularly on the internet.

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
You frequently see hair jewellery advertised as mourning jewellery, when it quite possibly isn't. Rings with human hair and pearls, for example, are likely to be 'sentimental' jewellery - worn as a token of love or friendship for someone still living. The clue, according to antique jewellery experts I've spoken to, is usually the presence of black enamel. Better still, of course, are the words 'In Memoriam' or 'In Memory Of' on the piece, or a personal inscription, which was common.

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.

Mizpah jewellery
Finally, what is 'mizpah'? Nothing to do with mourning, though sometimes this gets confused. The word comes from the Old Testament (Genesis 31: 49): 'And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent, one from another.' Mizpah jewellery was given by, or to, people about to part, often prior to going off to war. These days it's considered very collectable.


  1. Wow, that was fascinating. Human hair in jewellery - ewwww :)

  2. Ewwwww's right, but apparently it was dead (excuse the pun) trendy. I prefer diamonds myself.


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