Museum Monday: Mourning Jewelry

We love that we are seeing more interest in antique mourning and sentimental jewelry. These fascinating pieces were treasured by their original owners as tokens of remembrance, and it’s wonderful that they are still being appreciated today. Whole books have been written about this topic, but we’ll do our best to condense the history of mourning jewelry into the space of one blog.

Most examples of mourning jewelry were made during the Victorian era. In 1861, Queen Victoria went into mourning after the death of her husband Prince Albert, and remained as such for the rest of her life, some 40 years. This had heavy influence on the fashion of the day, both in England and abroad. Even a more traditional two and a half year mourning period meant that lovely black jewelry was fashioned to match.

Georgian Stuart crystal earrings collet set in silver with 14k gold ear wires, at Gray & Davis.

Georgian Stuart crystal earrings collet set in silver with 14k gold ear wires, at Gray & Davis.

However, jewelry made and worn for remembrance and mourning predates Victoria’s sorrow by centuries. Some point to the loyalist jewelry created after the execution of English King Charles I in 1649 as the first “mourning” pieces. Small gold wire symbols were encased in faceted crystal as earrings, rings and pendants. We call these Stuart crystals, named for the reigning family of the time.

 

Rings and brooches were soon made to memorialize not just monarchs, but family members and loved ones. Enamel work and engraving often tell us the sad details about the deceased; many were children.

Painted Georgian gold mourning brooch, at Gray & Davis

Painted Georgian gold mourning brooch, at Gray & Davis

The back of the mourning brooch, which reads "Charlotte Hunt, ob. Jan 7 1791"

The back of the mourning brooch, which reads "Charlotte Hunt, ob. Jan 7 1791"

Over the generations, this practice evolved; pieces were commissioned not just for mourning, but also to celebrate loved ones. Jewelry with miniature painted faces, sometimes just a twinkling eye, and jewelry of woven hair, occasionally hidden in a locket or ring, began to appear.

In this vein, sentimental motifs became popular in nineteenth century jewelry design. Knots, heart-shaped locks, buckles and entwined snakes all symbolized endless and unbreakable love. Queen Victoria’s engagement ring from her beloved Albert was a gold snake set with emerald.

Victorian 15k gold buckle locket ring, at G&D.

Victorian 15k gold buckle locket ring, at G&D.

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Victorian 15k gold buckle locket ring, at G&D.

Victorian 15k gold buckle locket ring, at G&D.

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It should come as no surprise that we are so excited for two exhibitions now on view. The Costume Institute’s new exhibition, “Death Becomes Her,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on through February 2015, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s “The Art of Mourning,” on through January 2015, both show the dress, jewelry and depiction in popular culture of 19th century and early 20th century mourners. We know what we’ll be wearing when we go!