Wednesday 21st July 2021 - Belle Gait
A Brief History of Bereavement Jewellery
Losing a loved one can feel like losing a piece of yourself. Many are left with a vast hole in both their lives and in their heart. Often in these times, we seek out comfort from different places. We may look for signs around us, seeing our loved one's favourite car or animal. Perhaps the smell of their perfume or hearing their favourite song. Some choose to spend time with friends and family, embracing the memories of our missing loved ones.
Another way that we may seek to channel this grief is through bereavement jewellery. Many find solace in the ability to wear a ring or necklace all the time, keeping a loved one closer to you. The power to choose from various styles and materials can bring comfort in these trying times. One of the latest trends in bereavement jewellery is placing the ashes of a loved one in a piece. Other jewellers offer the option to engrave a loved one's fingerprint on a pendant.
Some people might consider these new styles of bereavement jewellery quite morbid. However, they aren't actually that new, nor as macabre as the mourning jewellery pieces made popular in the late 1800s.
Victorian mourning jewellery was a popular way for women to display their loss and remember their loved ones. Women would dress entirely in black for an average period of two years (sometimes for life if a woman deemed herself, or was deemed to be, in deep mourning.) In addition to this dark and sombre attire, women would adorn themselves with different mourning jewellery. Whilst historical evidence suggests that mourning jewellery existed in the Middle Ages, it became most popular in 1861 when Queen Victoria went into mourning for her beloved husband, Prince Albert. She famously wore all black for the rest of her life.
In a lithograph released during the initial three months following her husband's death, she was captured in an all-black look, accessorised with a black fan, her gold wedding ring and a tiny locket on a black ribbon around her neck. It was assumed the locket contained her late husband's hair, and she repeatedly ordered memorial jewels from the royal jewellery Garrard. These items ranged from gold lockets with the late Prince's portrait or locks of hair to stick pins.
Queen Victoria also famously wore long strands of white pearls; these were meant to represent tears. It is pearls and diamonds that have continued to be worn to signify the loss of a loved one. Queen Elizabeth has been seen wearing strands of pearls, pearl earrings and a diamond-set bow brooch set with a pearl.
You may not think that trapping a loved one's lock of hair into a locket is that dreadful, but as mourning jewellery became more specific, so did the requests.
Locks of the deceased hair began to be woven into elaborate images by 'hair workers'. This three-dimensional hair work had been around since the 1830s, but with the increasing popularity of mourning and grief jewellery, hair artists began advertising their skills and wares. They would boast that their works of art were "the only lasting memento of the living and departed". They would weave the hair to spell out the deceased's name or create a bracelet from which a jewel could be hung. Some would even plait the hair under rock crystals to create a brooch. In fact, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) reports that England imported 50 tonnes of human hair every year during the Victorian period!
Whilst rarely seen at auction, some mourners actually had their loved one's teeth mounted into rings, and one mourning ring from the late 19th Century was actually made from the glass eye of the deceased person.
If you are collecting Victorian mourning jewellery, check out the Stamford Auction Rooms Sale – they have this gilt metal mourning pendant or this 19th Century mourning ring, Lot No 383, in the Taylors Auctions catalogue. This Victorian 9ct brooch is Lot No 309 in the Torridge Auctions timed sale ending 25th July at 10am BST.
Register to bid on any of our auctioneer's catalogues here.