The History Behind ... Victorian mourning jewelry

TrendsNov 03, 2014

The History Behind ... Victorian mourning jewelry

National Jeweler delves into the when, where and why of mourning jewelry worn during the Victorian era, which spanned 1837 to 1901.  

These gold mourning earrings have locks of blonde hair surrounded by tear-shaped pieces of onyx. They are from 1860-1870; a matching pin survives.
New York--As the Georgian era faded into Victorian times, mourning jewelry became less macabre.  

Depictions of grave-digging tools and skulls gave way to softer symbolism--clouds and angels--as mourning jewelry became entirely about remembering individuals who were lost, and was incorporated into the strict mourning dress code imposed upon women in Victorian times. 

Antique jewelry dealer Lenore Dailey shares her insights on the mourning jewelry of the period in this month’s The History Behind, a follow-up to September’s story on Georgian era mourning jewelry.

When was the Victorian era and what characteristics mark mourning jewelry from this period? Historically, it is the period from 1837 to 1901, spanning the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria, who remains the longest-reigning monarch in history (though she soon could lose that title to Elizabeth II.) 

Dailey, notes, however that the dates for jewelry design are not so exacting, as styles sometimes overlap dates. 

What makes Victorian era mourning jewelry different from that of the Georgian era? Early Georgian era mourning jewelry was more macabre, Dailey says.  It focused more on the concept of memento mori--remember that you will die--that later morphed into pieces created in memory of individuals. 

“As we come into the Victorian era, we are looking at it being primarily focused on the loss of a loved one. It’s not as macabre … It’s more focused on an individual,” she says, with phrases like “in memory of” and “lost but not forgotten” used. 

“It’s marking the passages of life. It’s keeping their loved ones close to them and incorporating it into social customs of the time, which were very strict.” 

Dailey says while mourning customs varied according to status, generally they were very detailed--women had to wear all black for a designated period of time and were restricted in what they could do socially after the loss of a loved one. Those who didn’t comply were shunned. 

“It was an outward display of what your inner feelings were supposed to be at the time,” she says. “Today you can lose the most important person in your life and walk out the door and no one knows anything.”

What about mourning customs for men? “They got off so easy,” Dailey laughs. 

Basically, men wore a black suit, maybe an arm band or a hat band, and black gloves. The social restrictions were few, as men had to go out and work, and find a new bride to help with the children if that was the case.

What are some of the materials used in Victorian era mourning jewelry?  First of all: black, which symbolized the lack of light, the lack of life, she says. “When you are thinking mourning jewelry you are thinking black.”

One of the favorite materials for Victorian mourning jewelry was jet, a fossilized coal that’s black and shiny. Vulcanite and gutta percha, two different forms of rubber from trees in Southeast Asia that are black, also were used interchangeably. 

Dailey says onyx, black enamel, dark tortoise shell, French jet (which is molded glass), pearls and bog oak, which is fossilized wood or peat from bogs, also were used. White enamel also came into use, primarily in pieces used to remember unmarried woman as well as children. 

She adds that hair was very popular in Victorian era mourning jewelry as the middle class emerged and desired more affordable options.

What were some of the symbols used in this jewelry? While the more macabre symbols from the Georgian era, such as skulls, coffins and grave-digging tools, faded out of use in the Victorian period, many more symbols carried over, Dailey said. There are clouds, weeping willows, tombs, urns, angels and women lamenting at tombs. 

How much is Victorian-era mourning jewelry worth today? Pieces range in price from a couple hundred dollars up to thousands, depending on the quality, the rarity and the materials used.

How can a retailer add this category to their antique jewelry offerings? “It’s more widely available, of course, as the Georgian and pre-Georgian pieces,” Dailey says, both because the era is more recent and more was made. 

She says retailers can find Victorian era mourning jewelry at most antique shows. Dealers who sell the pieces include Dailey as well as Darlene Boyard.

Dailey also recommends those with an interest in this category read In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry by Sarah Nehama, an “excellent” reference guide for mourning jewelry.

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

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