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(What's the Story) Mourning Jewelry?

Some of the world's oldest-known forms of jewelry were actually discovered in burial grounds, enclosed deep within the graves of the dead. These ancient forms of jewelry were used ceremonially to mourn and honor the dead. Many were made of gold, and many ancient mourning or memorial jewelry often contained teeth, hair or bones from human remains too. The popularity of mourning jewelry reached its peak after the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria of England was saddened over the loss of her beloved husband. Her use of mourning jewelry popularized the tradition throughout the era. In fact, in 1861, it became customary for widows to wear mourning jewelry after the loss of a husband, for a period of one to two years. However, Queen Victoria wore her mourning ring for the remainder of her life. Mourning jewelry was not just for women. Many men also wore mourning jewelry and macabre mementos in honor of their loved ones, usually in the form of cufflinks, lockets and pocket watch fobs.

Jet Hair Mourning Jewelry Pendant
Mourning Jewelry Jet Hair Pendant

Mourning jewelry became widely associated with the Victorian era, even though it had been around long before Queen Victoria. Mourning jewelry became commercialized, rather than invented during the Victorian era. Mourning rings were the most popular form of mourning jewelry worn. They were usually paid for by the family of the deceased. In most cases, the wealthier the family was, the more they would spend on elaborate designs. In many cases, mourning jewelry was often given to close relatives of the deceased. Mourning rings ranged from plain gold bands, to fancy designs with diamonds and precious stones. Portraits or ivory carvings were very popular during this time, usually inscribed with the name, date and age of the deceased.

Black was the most popular color for mourning jewelry during the Victorian era. With regard to gemstones, jet was an especially popular choice for those who could afford it. Jet is a fossilized organic gemstone prized for its black color and waxy, velvety luster. Black agate, black onyx, obsidian (natural volcanic glass) and hematite were also very popular. For those who could not afford natural black gemstones, other materials were often substituted, such as black glass. As for the making of jewelry mountings, black enamel was the hallmark of most mourning jewelry designs, since it was very affordable and because there were not many other black materials to choose from for gem settings. However, in many cases, other colored materials could also be used, since the colors had certain meanings when it came to mourning. For example, it was believed that when a woman died unwed and virginal, it was considered proper to mourn and honor her with white mourning jewelry; in this case, white enamel was often used. To mourn the death of a child, pearls were often used and set into mourning jewelry.

Natural Gemstone Cameo Carving
Gemstone Cameo Carving

Although rings were the most common form of mourning jewelry of the 19th century, brooches and pendants slowly started to gained in popularity. This is partly because brooches and pendants allowed people to incorporate strands of woven human hair and other kinds of personal relics into their mourning jewelry. In fact, many of the most interesting jewelry designs made during this time included strands of human hair. However, it was not always the hair of the deceased that was used. It was later found out that that over 50 tons of human hair was imported in England during the 19th century for jewelry, which unfortunately means that many people were misleadingly sold jewelry that did not contain the hair of their loved ones as they most likely were led to believe.

As time went by, many eventually became tired of the morbid practice of wearing mourning jewelry. Black dresses and black jewelry became depressing and people soon began demanding more color. After the turn of the 20th century, for the most part, mourning jewelry was abandoned and in its place, a more cheerful spin-off gained popularity; sentimental jewelry. Modern-day sentimental jewelry is worn by friends and lovers who are still alive rather than dead.

  • First Published: November-13-2014
  • Last Updated: January-23-2019
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