Mourning jewellery can perhaps trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, and ‘momento mori’ jewels, which translates to ‘remember death.’ Rather than reminding the wearer of a loved one who had passed away, these earlier jewels were designed to remind the wearer of their own mortality, and in doing so encourage them to live a moral life.
The Georgian’s developed the trope, however the motifs used moved away from the more menacing reminders of ones own mortality, such as sculls and skeletons, and instead they used softer, more sentimental images of mourners lamenting their loved ones at a grave side or images or urns, with private inscriptions, perhaps on the reverse or inside of the ring band, of a loved ones name and dates of birth and death. While they were still recognisable and public displays of one’s loss, these were far more subtle messages.
While most often they were displays of one’s personal losses, they also occasionally displayed political or ideological alinements. It was often dangerous to publicly nail one’s colours to the mast in terms of support for deposed kings or political figures, but jewellery could offer a subtler way of showing the discerning eye that the wearer belonged to certain circles, as this Stuart period pendant lamenting the execution of Charles I suggests.
However, it was the Victorians who really popularised these jewels, particularly after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in 1861, and much of the mourning jewellery we see at auction dates from this period. Popular materials include Jet, onyx, dark enamels and pearls, and while the Georgians often included a lock of a loved one’s hair in their jewels, the Victorians turned ‘hair jewellery’ into an art form. Hair was associated with immortality as it appeared imperishable, and it was strong, so it could be curled and braided into a miniature scene, perhaps of a weeping willow or carefully plated to form a bracelet or watch chain. Indeed, Garrards, the Royal Jewellers, reportedly kept a stock of ‘Royal Hair’ ready should any member of the family pass away and commissions for a sentimental memorial piece be requested.
Today, mourning jewellery is still a developing area. While the Victorian motifs are often considered outdated, and the skull and crossbones does not have the same menacing connotations it once did, jewellery to remember a loved one is still a strong market. Certain companies can now ‘create’ gemstones containing the ashes of a loved one; these stones can then be set in a piece of jewellery; perhaps not as outwardly obvious a piece of mourning jewellery as their antique forbears but still immensely personal to the wearer.