Mourning jewellery is of two general types, either a commemorative piece which marks the death of an individual, or one which denotes that the wearer is observing a period of formal bereavement. The former variety, also sometimes known as memorial jewellery, predates the latter, and became popular in the mid-seventeenth century. Memorial jewels of this period often incorporate an inscription relating to the deceased, typically a small poem, such as ‘Not lost but gone before’, or ‘Requiescat In Pace’ (Rest in Peace). In terms of decoration, skulls were a popular motif, which also featured in non-memorial jewellery, and were meant to remind the wearer of the brevity of life. The other major decorative device during this period was hair belonging to the deceased, usually braided, either centrally set and covered by a transparent crystal, or concealed beneath the bezel.
Some of these stylistic devices carried into the eighteenth century, especially the decorative use of hair. However, the somewhat grim skeleton imagery was replaced by more subtle symbolic motifs befitting of the presiding neoclassical taste. This included funerary urns, weeping willow trees, harps, sheaves of wheat and broken columns. Black and other dark shades of enamel such as deep blue were also used in memorial jewellery of this century, as well as dark stones, particularly amethysts. Replacing poems, inscriptions were typically an abbrevation of the name, date of death and age at death of the deceased, however some were more elaborate.
Both the sentimentalism brought on by the Romantic movement in the first half of the nineteenth century and the extended mourning of Queen Victoria for her husband Albert, Prince Consort, made the nineteenth century the pinnacle of the mourning jewellery fashion. Black enamel and hair continued to be the standard decorative devices, though the introduction of the concept of the ‘Language of Flowers’ brought about the use of symbolic floral decoration, the most popular of which was the forget-me-not, a blue, five-petaled flower which signified remembrance.
Mourning jewellery of a more general form was created to coordinate with the all-black mourning dress of this era, which reached the height of its employ during the aforementioned bereavement of Queen Victoria. Jet, a black fossilized wood found near the town of Whitby in Yorkshire, was one of the few acceptable mourning jewellery materials, the other being black enamelled gold. Mourning jewellery swiftly fell from fashion in the twentieth century, perhaps due to the exhaustive, extraordinarily long yet touching observance period of Victoria for Albert, which lasted from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.
Clare Phillips, Jewels & Jewellery, London: V&A Publications, 2000.
Diana Scarisbrick, Rings: Jewelry of Love, Power and Loyalty, London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.