How did mourning jewellery come to be?
In the 15th and 16th century mourning jewellery became popular, the earliest examples being during the Cromwellian period 1649-1660, usually in the form of a skull enamelled in black and white. In fact after the Civil war it was considered to be a status symbol to wear such jewellery, especially rings. The reasoning behind this was the execution of Charles I, people would wear such items as a commemoration.
In the early 18th century fine scrolled rings were made in white enamel if mourning a single person, black enamel for a married one. In a ring, the name, age, birth and death date would be engraved around the inside of a ring, and these were often set with a small diamond.
Memorial jewellery would often contain a lock of hair, this plaited under a thin piece of glass, usually at the reverse of a locket for example. The Classical revival at the end of the 18th century extended to mourning jewellery when rings and brooches were produced depicting shapes or images of funereal urns. Plaited hair of a loved one would surround an ivory plaque and would often depict a painted portrait of the deceased, and would be often framed in black enamel set with diamonds, or perhaps semi-precious stones such as seed pearls or garnets.
In the Regency period whole suites of jewellery would be made from the hair of the deceased loved one. Rather oddly most of this hair seemed to be a nondescript brown, rarely was black or blonde seen, this actually makes one wonder, was this jewellery embedded with the deceased hair in the first place?
However, the mass use of mourning jewellery came to the fore in the Victorian era, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Black jet was the favourite medium, and brooches, pendants and necklaces were made in the thousands, often engraved ‘In Memoriam’ or ‘In Memory of’. Victoria did allow some usage of coral and pearls to lighten the mood for this form of jewellery but after she died in 1901, so did the fashion for mourning jewellery. However, today it is highly collectable and prices continue to rise.
You can find more information about mourning jewellery on our online store Vintage Tom