Jewellery is worn for a variety of different reasons. Engagement and wedding rings are outward expressions of love and lockets contain images of loved ones held close to the heart, but there are some pieces which are crafted with a more intricate symbolic meaning.
Mourning jewellery is not to be confused with remembrance jewellery. The latter is a tribute to a specific loss intended to keep the memory of a lost loved one alive, but the meaning behind mourning jewellery is more intricate.
What is Mourning Jewellery
Although the roots of mourning jewellery stretch back into ancient times it was first popularised in the 16th century, when it acquired the name “Memento Mori”, a Latin phrase that means “Remember that you will die”. Although this may seem to be an overly morbid theme for objects which are essentially decorative the actual meaning of the phrase is surprisingly upbeat.
The central idea is that the memory of the inevitability of death will encourage the wearer to make the most of their life. Rather than being a depressing reminder of the end it is a spur to seize the day and make the most of the time that you have on this planet. Despite the sombre imagery employed in memento mori pieces they are intended as a positive force in a person’s life; an encouragement to live well.
Victorian Mourning Jewellery
Mourning pieces have been popular for centuries, but they experienced a particular resurgence during the mid-Victorian era, sometimes referred to as the “grand period”. This time directly followed the death of the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, an event which profoundly affected both Victoria and the mood of her subjects. Having such a prominent and beloved figure die, and seeing the effect on the head of state, brought thoughts of death closer to the forefront of people’s awareness.
This was also a time of great prosperity and innovation. The British Empire was at the height of its power, and the wealth of many nations flowed into its heart, allowing access to precious materials in great abundance. Jewellers were able to use new industrial processes and employ a greater knowledge of both metallurgy and gem craft to craft new and exciting ways to celebrate life through the depiction of death.
Mourning jewellery made use of darker materials to fit their theme. Black stones such as jet and onyx fit this purpose perfectly, creating a stark contrast with gleaming gold and silver. Garnet, a deep red stone, came to be favoured as it was less ostentatious than other crimson gems and more readily available than the rarer ruby.
Silver was popular, as its association with moonlight and attending darkness was well established. The Victorian fascination with ancient civilisations also bound gold more tightly to mourning themes as it was discovered in great amounts within freshly excavated tombs in far flung places.
All this is not to say that mourning jewellery rejected brighter stones – diamonds retained their popularity for example – but they were used more sparingly and with greater contrast.
Imagery of Death
Memento mori jewellery was not subtle in its forms. Some of the more prevalent designs were rings built around a carved, grinning skull, often with gemset eyes. In some pieces these skulls were hidden behind a locket hatch, but others leered openly from the ring’s shank. Pieces were carved with entire skeletal figures, often presented with an accompanying scythe to render them the image of the grim reaper – not just a dead person but the anthropomorphic personification of death itself.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have long been fascinated by antique mourning jewellery, and it has been our pleasure to discover some truly remarkable pieces over the years.
You can view our full collection of such pieces here.
If you have any questions about the pieces which we sell feel free to get in touch on England: 0333 700 4500 or send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Our team is always happy to help!