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Life After Death: The Morbidly Beautiful World of Mourning Jewelry

Posted on May 31 2016

Jewelry has always had a varied role in human history; and no use is quite as interesting as the beautiful world of mourning jewelry. People have long worn jewels to commemorate different occasions. The rise in mourning jewelry started during the Victorian period when jewelry began to incorporate pieces of a loved ones' hair, skeleton, nails, and teeth along the side of the conventional gemstones.

As traditions and tastes changed with the times, mourning jewelry has remained a staple with those left behind. With cremation jewelry gaining popularity recently, mourning jewelry continues to have an interesting and rich history.

Why Memorial Jewelry?

The history of memorial jewelry simply began as a way to remember the loved ones that had passed. Photography had not been invented yet and creating art portraits were time consuming and were far too expensive. Mourning jewelry was not only the cheaper option but also allowed family members to keep a memento of their loved one with them at all times.

Interestingly enough, mourning jewelry was not exclusive to just women. Men, of that time, wore cuff links or pocket watch fobs with strands of the deceased hair braided in.

Black enamel was the hallmark finishing material for most mourning pieces. Although white enamel was often used to represent an unwed and virgin woman that had passed. Different materials and gemstones would also have varied meanings. A pearl, for example, signified the death of a child.

The Evolution of Mourning Jewelry

As mourning jewelry gained popularity, different colors began to represent different stages of grief. Observing the traditional Victorian mourning rules, the various colors integrated into a piece of mourning jewelry would match the changing grieving period.

Victorian widows were expected to mourn their husbands for at least two years, and were only permitted to wear memorial jewelry after the first year of mourning. The only jewelry that they were allowed to wear was memorial jewelry and couldn’t combine them with any other pieces. During this time, mourning jewelry served three functions:

  • To show that the recently deceased had not been forgotten
  • “Memento Mori,” a reminder of the inevitability of death
  • Status symbol

As times changed, mourning jewelry began to not only incorporate colors but also images and photographs of the deceased and the rules became less strict.

The Royalty Treatment: Queen Victoria’s Quiet Mourning

Mourning jewelry was common within the political and religious elite as well as the common folk. The passing Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, first popularized mourning jewelry. Devastated by his loss, Queen Victoria dressed in mourning clothes for the remainder of her life. In addition to her mourning clothes, Queen Victoria would wear a personalized memorial ring of her husband that included a portrait of him.

Queen Victoria’s mourning material of choice was jet, which helped popularize the material and expand the industry. Jet, often described as a black form of brown coal, was formed from the wood of a tree growing 135 million years ago. With the royal endorsement, jet jewelry not only represented mourning but also became a symbol of wealth, social position and status, as it was very expensive to buy.

How Important Was Mourning Jewelry to the People That Wore It? 

Mourning rings were among the most popular and common form of early memorial jewelry. Easy and inexpensive to make, mourning rings could include inscriptions and other mementos of the loved one that past. The rings were paid for by the estate and usually given to family members and close friends of the deceased.

Early versions of mourning rings ranged from gold bands to rings set with diamonds and/or other gemstones. Some incorporated miniature ivory portraits. All mourning rings were inscribed with the name, date of death, and age of the deceased on the inside of the band. Inscriptions of “not lost but gone before,” “we must submit” and “we’re his last” were commonly included on the outside of the band to not only remind the mourner of their loved one but of their own mortality as well.

The styles of the mourning rings were heavily dependent on the current fashions during that time. Scrolled enamel bands were popular during the mid eighteenth century. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, American mourners favored Republicanism and the neoclassical style. Throughout the nineteenth century, brooches and miniatures set in pendants began gaining popularity and rings became less so.

Evolution of Mourning Jewelry: Morning Lockets, Collars and Inscriptions

When photography could be printed in high enough quality to shrink, they began to be incorporated into mourning jewelry. Lockets were created that could include these new shrunken photographs that could be worn as necklaces and bracelets. The lockets could also include other mementos of the recently departed such as hair, bones or another photograph.

The most interesting type of mourning jewelry included hair. The hair would not necessarily be of the deceased, however. The hair would be woven into the jewelry, whether the piece was a bracelet, necklace or ring. The hair could be woven into a miniature portrait of a tree for example. Others just showed a strand of braided hair right in the pendant.

Carved cameos or silhouettes were also a popular jewelry option.

Mourning Jewelry: Then and Now 

Memorial jewelry is once again gaining popularity among mourners. Mourning jewelry has been given a new life in the form of cremation ash jewelry. These pieces hold the cremation ashes of your loved in the pendant of a necklace or bracelet. Most pieces have the option of engraving and often don’t look like mourning jewelry at all.

Mourning jewelry gets the unfair stereotype of being morbid and creepy when in reality they are a helpful way to help commemorate the memory of a loved one. While we may all deal with death and loss different, mourning jewelry is regarded as the ideal memorial object. It may serve as great memorial of the deceased but also as a reminder of the inevitably of our own end and to live our lives fully.


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