The History Behind … Georgian mourning jewelry

TrendsAug 11, 2016

The History Behind … Georgian mourning jewelry

This month, National Jeweler delves into the when, where and why of mourning jewelry worn between roughly 1714 and 1830. 

New York-- Seeing her first piece of Georgian mourning jewelry with a hand-painted scene some 25 years ago almost made Lenore Dailey cry, and it changed the course of career. 

“I was amazed by it,” says the Michigan-based antique jewelry dealer and collector, recalling the powerful imagery of the piece, created in memory of a child who died at the age of 2, that steered her into buying and selling the category. 

A quarter of a century later, Dailey, who declines the title of “expert” when it comes to mourning jewelry and instead refers to herself as an “enthusiastic collector with much to learn,” shared her knowledge for National Jeweler’s The History Behind.

This month’s feature focuses on mourning jewelry from the Georgian period, the era when King George I through George IV ruled England, from 1714 to 1830.

What is mourning jewelry? To understand the type of mourning jewelry worn during the Georgian period, one must first take a step back and look at the pieces worn prior to the mid-1600s. 

Dailey says in that time, memento mori jewelry largely was donned to remind the wearer that they, too, would die one day; that life is transient and fleeting. (Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “Remember that you will die.”)

“There was so much death and dying” in those days, Dailey observes. “Mothers lost children … there were so many diseases. Death was something that was on their minds.” 

The shift in mourning jewelry began around 1649 with the execution of King Charles I of England. 

Dailey says many royalists wanted to show their support sympathy for the fallen king. They commissioned their jewelers to make pieces of faced Stuart crystal (the king was of the House of Stuart) with a portrait of the king underneath. 

This began a trend among the wealthy aristocracy to have mourning pieces commissioned to remember their own lost loved ones, marking a shift from memento mori--pieces that were a reflection of mortality and the transient nature of life on earth--to mourning jewelry, which focuses on remembrance, grief, comfort and consolation. 

What materials were used for these pieces? Some of the materials used to make Georgian era mourning jewelry were gold, along with silver and base metals, and rock crystal. Very rarely, diamonds were used.

Some of the scenes included in mourning pieces were painted on copper, vellum (a parchment made from animal skin), and ivory, trade in which now is severely restricted in the United States. 

Human hair also was utilized, to paint the scenes and as part of the design. 

How much is Georgian-era mourning jewelry worth today? Prices for pieces from this period range from $300 or $400 for a small locket to the thousands for larger, more elaborate pieces commissioned by the wealthier individuals of the day. 

How can a retailer add this category to their antique jewelry offerings? Dailey said quality pieces from the Georgian era are fairly scarce. “You are going to have to hunt for them, just like I do,” she says. 

Dealers who work in this category include Dailey, Samuel Gassman of E. Foxe Harrell in New York and Darlene Boyard

No matter from whom a retailer chooses to source their Georgian mourning jewelry, Dailey offers this piece of advice: work with a reputable dealer who stands behind whatever they sell.  

Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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