Mourning jewelry: paint it black

Circa 1870s black enamel mourning brooch. Photo courtesy of ArtofMourning.com

NEW YORK – Wearing mourning jewelry was a popular practice in the Victorian era. The fashion trend is said to have swept across England and Europe and even into America when Queen Victoria became a widow. Her husband Albert’s death in 1861 sent her into an extended period of mourning that influenced social fashions for many years, spanning such trends as memento mori jewelry and hair jewelry.

Memento mori translates to “remember death.” Tokens of death and grief fashioned into lockets, rings and other jewelry pieces were worn to commemorate and remember loved ones or statesmen. While these kinds of jewelry fell out of fashion after a few decades, some contemporary jewelry designers are reviving the trend and antique mourning jewelry items are well collected today.

An important Horatio Nelson mourning ring brought $18,517 in April 2015 at Authenticated Internet Auctions Ltd. It was custom to make rings for the vice admiral’s family and friends to wear. Photo courtesy of Authenticated Internet Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

“Mourning jewelry started with Queen Victoria’s reign … macabre memento mori and remembering death in our life,” said Whitney Bria, jewelry specialist at Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, New York. “Victorian mourning jewelry was more to remember a loved one, to incorporate a lost loved one in your daily life.” She said Victorian jewelry is broken down in three sections, starting with the Romantic Period—coinciding with Victoria’s ascent to the throne in 1837—featuring romantic motis like hearts and birds and the feminine. The Grand Period (1860-80) encompassed her time of mourning and was followed by the Aesthetic Period (1880-1901), after people had tired of the austere decorum of the previous period. This period lasted until Victoria’s death in 1901, ending the Victorian era.

A lot consisting of two silver Victorian jewelry pieces memorializing Abraham Lincoln realized $25,000 at Heritage Auctions in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Mourning jewelry, naturally, often featured dark colors and black as these were colors associated with death. Snakes were a common motif. “Snakes represented eternity and eternal love,” Bria said, adding that a lot of rose-cut diamonds were used in jewelry in this period. “There are some really beautifully crafted pieces; not just the hair jewelry that people associate with mourning jewelry.

Hair jewelry is a subgenre of mourning jewelry that was popular with long pieces of a loved one’s hair woven into necklaces or bracelets or small cuttings incorporated into rings or encased behind a locket. A portrait of Madame Alcée Villeré in the collection of the Historic New Orleans Collection depicts an affluent woman in the 1850s wearing a pair of banded bracelets made with woven hair.

This 1840s palette-worked hair brooch features black enamel, pearl and gold wire. Photo courtesy of ArtofMourning.com

Across the board, the most desirable types of mourning jewelry include necklaces, earrings, rings and brooches, noted Bria. “There are a lot of Victorian slide necklaces, with longer chains with some seed pearls and enameling. I do think the rings and earrings in general for all jewelry are most popular,” she said.

Haydn Peters, who runs the Art of Mourning website, which is dedicated to mourning jewelry, wrote of hair jewelry in a recent blog, “Hair is a transcendent material. It has the ability to capture all the essence of a loved one, the color to the very smell, and be able to transform into a piece of art,” he wrote. “Sentimentality in fashion comes at a cost. Be it a dress that could be created or customized to be in mourning through to a jewel that could made for love, there’s no finer material for the loving keepsake. It literally is a piece of the loved one, without any elaboration to extend its value.”
Collectors of hair jewelry will do well to pay careful attention to condition as these items often were affixed with arabic gums that can deteriorate over time. “If you are buying a piece of hair jewelry, make sure of the condition, it’s such a fragile piece of jewelry and a lot of times they are torn,” Bria said. “I’ve seen tubular woven hair necklaces that are easily damaged. The favorite is a mourning jewelry locket where the hair is in the back.”

This group lot totaling 35 pieces of Victorian mourning jewelry sold for $1,500 in November 2016 at Clarke Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Besides remembering loved ones, royalty and political leaders/statesmen were often memorialized in mourning jewelry. A two-piece set of mourning jewelry mourning Abraham Lincoln, a large engraved locket-style pendant and a pin-back brooch, each having a sketch of his birthplace log cabin made from strands of Lincoln’s hair, sold at Heritage Auctions in September 2016 for $25,000. “Preserving a loved one or famous person’s hair was a widespread custom in Victorian times, and it was often incorporated into rings, bracelets, lockets, etc. However, this is the only example of which we are aware that incorporated the hair of our 16th president,” according to the auction catalog description.

Another standout in mourning jewelry was a gold “Stuart crystal” mourning pendant for Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (July 24, 1689-July 30, 1700), England, circa 1700, that attained $35,000 at Freeman’s November 2017 auction that offered the Irvin and Anita Schorsch collection of mourning jewelry.

A pair of antique 18K gold bracelets with diamonds featuring openwork scroll form pendants sold at Clarke Auction Gallery in January 2018 for $4,200. Photo courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery

Bria noted makers of mourning jewelry used a variety of materials, not just gold. Pinchbeck, an alloy of copper and zinc or base metals, were often used when gold was too expensive. “They tried to make it more accessible to the general public,” she said, noting that woods, resins and jet were popularly used as their dark colors echoed mortality themes. A pair of antique 18K gold bracelets with diamonds featuring openwork scroll form pendants with black and white enamel decoration sold at Clarke Auction Gallery in January 2018 for $4,200. A group of 35 pieces of Victorian mourning jewelry earned $1,500 in November 2016 at Clarke Auction Gallery. Many brooches featured seed pearl, garnet and amethyst surrounds. Several had detailed inscriptions such as “W. Watts died Augt 1842 Aged 66,” and “Robert Elsden Augt 183? Oct 25.”

Born of grief and love, mourning jewelry was a testament of affection and easily transportable—a way to carry a piece of someone around long after their passing. Today, collectors appreciate the history that each piece carries with it as well as its inherent beauty.