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Mourning Jewellery

Whitby Jet, vulcanite, turquoise, seed pearls, enamel and motifs, the list goes on....

13/06/2024     Blog

This week our Specialist Jewellery Valuer Madison-Rose McDonald looks at the history behind her favourite specialism, Mourning Jewellery.

Whitby Jet, vulcanite, turquoise, seed pearls, enamel and motifs, the list goes on for the number of beautiful methods and materials used to curate the sentimental homages to a loved one, that we see so often in antique mourning jewellery. 

Mourning jewellery dates back to the 1600’s. However, as many of us know,  mourning jewellery began to gain popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria, after the passing of her husband, Prince Albert. 

Mourning jewellery comes in many forms and is presented in varied ways throughout the ages, however, among the most popular methods:

Previous to the reign of Queen Victoria, the Latin Phrase “Memento Mori” was a popular  motif in Georgian mourning jewellery, that roughly translates to “Remember You Must Die”. Although some perceive this macabre and morbid, many folks of the times took comfort in this phase, therefore entwined the theme throughout mourning jewellery. Depictions of objects such as coffins, urns and skulls were used as symbols during this time, and although not always used as mourning jewellery, people used these pieces as a reminder of their own mortality, or “Memento Mori’. 

Keeping on the theme of phrases, another used heavily within Victorian mourning jewellery was the Hebrew phrase “Mizpah”, roughly translating to “watchtower”. People during Victorian times used this phrase as a source of comfort, much alike “Memento Mori” during the Georgian era. A loose meaning of the phrase was said to be “May God Watch Over You”, which understandably during the Victorian era, was a motif kept tight in clutch. 

Queen Victoria was rumoured to keep a lock of her beloved’s hair in a locket necklace, and when word spread, the trend was captured by many. So much so, the trend even began creating jobs for women of the time, dubbed “hair weavers”. 

Hair weaving was a method used in mourning jewellery to create a timeless and eternal bond with a loved one within a keepsake. A lock of the deceased hair was weaved into intricate grid patterns or ornate scrolling designs, and placed as a centre panel to a ring, brooch, pendant or other piece of jewellery. Often the centrepiece to a strikingly eye-catching piece of mourning jewellery, we often see these panels of hair work set to the centre of a deep black surrounding, such as black enamel or onyx. 

Edwardian mourning jewellery saw a drastic but welcome shift, to more delicate and lighter designs, focusing on intricacy, shapes, and the subset Art Nouveau period. 

However, the use of hair within the Edwardian period was still highly popular. Another method of hair work, was the grounding a loved one's hair to create a powder form which is then mixed with paint and used to decorate ornate but woeful scenes onto materials such as ivory, enamel, porcelain and tortoiseshell. Motifs such as weeping willows, cameos and bouquets of flowers are all popular scenes within the period. 

What is most interesting to me about the shift of themes throughout the eras of mourning jewellery, is the seemingly constant theme of paying homage to a loved one, through creating such intricate and exquisite jewellery designs, a memento that will last a lifetime and more.

If you are interested in learning more, taking a look at some beautiful pieces of mourning jewellery, or having a piece valued, the team at Sheffield Auction Gallery are here to help.