Thanks to Halloween, this is the month of the macabre, which makes it a perfect time of year to discuss antique mourning jewelry.
Death came early and often in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In Colonial America, or the Georgian era (1714 to 1837), the specter of death was persistent. Much art and jewelry design was focused on the concept of Memento Mori: the medieval practice of pondering mortality and the salvation of the soul. Through the 1700s, jewelry of this type often featured ghoulish images of skulls, gravediggers and coffins.
Although people had made jewelry to commemorate death for centuries, it wasn’t until the reign of Queen Victoria that pieces were made to remember a dead individual. Before photography, the only way for people to remember a loved one was to create a touchstone that could be carried every day as a reminder.
In 1861, after the death of her beloved Albert, Queen Victoria went into perpetual mourning. The queen’s epic sadness over her loss was a major catalyst for mourning fashion. Her reign marked the height of the mourning industry.
For decades, Queen Victoria wore only black clothing and matching mourning jewelry, popularizing the tradition both in England and in the U.S. During her reign, mourning grew into a respectful, yet fashionable practice. Women became quite interested in wearing attractive mourning dresses and jewelry.
The etiquette for mourning fashion became so stringent, elaborate and confusing that magazines published guides and schedules, describing, for example, how a widow’s mourning was expected to last two years. During the first year, she was allowed to wear only black clothing and jewelry, which led to a tremendous rise in the popularity of jet — black, fossilized coal — in jewelry design.
Although black was the obvious color for mourning jewelry, certain distinctions were made about the piece’s surface. Since the earliest stages of mourning were strictly regulated, it was considered poor taste to wear highly polished jet too soon. So matte-finished pieces were made for early mourning.
Black enamel, along with jet, was the hallmark of most — but not all — mourning jewelry. Pieces that used white enamel meant that the deceased woman was unmarried and pearls signified the loss of a child.
During the Victorian period, symbols of death softened into angels, clouds, weeping willows and urns. Phrases like “in memory of” and “lost but not forgotten” were frequently used in jewelry designs along with gemstones.
As the middle class rose and desired more affordable options, bits of the deceased’s hair were worked into more pieces. Hairwork refers to jewelry and art made from woven human hair. The intimacy of preserving someone’s memory by using a lock of his or her hair appealed to many.
The popularity of hairwork created a large market for mass-produced gold fittings for specially commissioned items using the deceased’s hair. People made wreaths, men’s watch fobs, bracelets, necklaces and brooches out of human hair. During the mid-1800s, with the increased demand for hairwork as mourning jewelry, there was widespread distrust of jewelers who neglected to use the deceased’s hair in “custom-made” pieces. In fact, more than 50 tons of bulk human hair were imported to England annually to be used by the country’s jewelers.
The high mortality rate of the First World War led to a decline in the formality of mourning. This period of mass human attrition blurred the lines of mourning regulations. Families felt personally impacted by the Great War. Death was closer, a part of day-to-day life. Public mourning codes became a burden. So many people were trying to cope with grief that mourning fashion and strict codes were increasingly viewed as affectations.
By the 1920s, people were tired of drab mourning clothing and even the concept of a regulated mourning period seemed antiquated. The fashion of mourning was soon abandoned.
Our own Tudor Place has an extensive collection of hairwork mourning jewelry, including a gold-edged locket containing locks of George Washington’s hair. In 2010, curators discovered a locket from 1845 in the Tudor Place archives with a lock of child’s hair that belonged to an ancestor of the Armisteads, the last owners of the property.
Michelle Galler, a specialist in American primitives and folk art, lives in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds in Washington, Virginia. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.