Although Mourning Jewelry has a long & fascinating history, going back to as far as Middle Ages, its popularity reached its peak during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901).
The execution of Charles I in 1649 - one of the most significant and controversial events in English history - marked the official beginning of the Industry of Death.
As sad as it sounds, life after 40-45 was a rarity in those days. Wars, diseases like cholera, typhoid & smallpox were the most common killers. Mourning jewelry brought some comfort to people who had to deal with frequent losses of the loved ones.
The pieces of that period nowadays would be considered rather gruesome, often containing a piece of hair or skin of the deceased. The rings, lockets, brooches etc would often feature a skeleton, skull and crossed bones or would be coffin shaped.
Piece of mourning jewelry was typically made in dedication of a reputable member of the society passing and as a general rule, the more influential that person was, the greater the number of items were made and distributed.
The XVIII century’s mourning jewelry industry is represented by softer, the more gentle & sentimental pieces: articles made of black or white enamel (which symbolized that the deceased was a child or an unmarried person), jet or black onyx. Stones set in these items were also usually black.
Bands were bearing an inscription with name, date of death on inside & the wording “in memory of” highlighted in gold capitals on enameled field on the outside of the shank.
Some pieces depicted funerary urn and weeping willow, while other were designed as snakes (symbols of eternal love). Popular articles featured cherubs, clouds and mourners sobbing at tombs.
“Tear” jewelry with a single eye weeping tear (usually illustrated on ivory) is highly collectable today.
Mourning Jewelry is the type of jewelry people wear during the mourning period, which normally last up to 2 years. Victorians normally wore black clothes and not shiny jewelry, which was normally made of jet, onyx or other black material.
The highlight of the mid XIX century was a fashion for jewelry with hair finely woven into ropes or balls. They were perfect for earrings or brooches.
Premature loss of her dear husband Prince Albert in 1861 & death of her mother (last 2 events happened in the same year) plunged Queen Victoria into deep depression & almost 40 years of mourning. She spent most of the next 4 decades wearing black dresses and mourning jewelry, making it very fashionable.
Black (not shiny) materials were used in making jewelry: jet, onyx, black enamel, bog oak, vulcanite, later - French jet (type of glass manufactured in France, less expensive to produce than authentic jet).
After Prince Albert’s death the use of jet (which is a type of fossilized wood) in jewelry industry reached its peak. Jet is a light in weight and soft and warm material, found along 2 miles stretch of coastline, near Whitby, North Yorkshire.
Queen Victoria had a large collection of jewelry of all kinds, but particularly favored her sentimental jewelry: one of her favorite pieces was locket with her husband’s hair. For Victorians hair in jewelry symbolized immortality, as it contained the “substance" of the deceased.
As Queen Victoria & subsequently England had been in mourning for nearly half a century, after Queen’s death in 1901 the whole mourning jewelry industry had vanished almost overnight.
It’s quite uncommon to find Mourning Jewelry of Victorian or Georgian era in most of the jewelry shops nowadays, as these pieces are highly collectable & often exhibited in the museums. Value tends to increase however the condition is always a critical factor.
Mourning jewelry should be associated more with expression of love rather than grievance, with the main purpose of keeping a deceased loved one close to the heart.