The tradition of wearing mourning jewellery to remember a loved one dates as far back as the 1600s.
Mourning jewellery is most often associated with the Victorian period, popularised by Queen Victoria’s very public mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. For the next 40 years until her own death, Queen Victoria wore nothing but black, and commissioned special jewellery pieces to commemorate Albert, as well as other beloved family members who had died, such as her mother and her daughter, Alice.
Many of these pieces were made from black stones like jet and onyx, and some incorporated a lock of hair or a photograph of the deceased, which were all design elements that became popular among the masses – though many opted for cheaper black materials like black glass (‘French jet’), enamel or vulcanite.
Well-dressed mourners in the Victorian era would not feel completely dressed without a few pieces of mourning jewellery. As with mourning clothes, there were different types of mourning jewellery to be worn throughout the stages of grief. In the early stages, dull and opaque jewellery was required, while later on, when the period of deep mourning had passed, dark purple, grey and polished pieces were acceptable.
Mourning pieces weren’t necessarily all black, though, with surviving examples commonly incorporating agate, pearl, garnet, human hair, ivory and gold, making for some truly striking and beautiful items. Pearls were often incorporated into the jewels made to remember children as they symbolised tears, while white enamel was used to remember children and unmarried women.
Perhaps most characteristic of Victorian mourning jewellery is the use of human hair, often woven into intricate patterns or even depicting miniature scenes. It was also commonly braided into the chains that held watches or pendants. Victorians believed that human hair contained the essence of a person, and therefore had a sacred quality. It symbolised the deceased loved one’s essence, as well as immortality, since hair survives long after a person is gone.
While mourning jewellery was a common feature of many people’s wardrobes, it wasn’t always worn to express grief. Popularised by Queen Victoria in the mid to late 1800s, black jewellery was also simply a popular fashion statement. Visitors to Whitby, England, in the Victorian era had the opportunity to purchase souvenir jewellery made from the locally mined jet. If you have inherited a piece of black jewellery with no mourning symbolism or memorial inscription, then you most likely have a piece of English souvenir jewellery.
In addition, black bakelite jewellery manufactured in the 1930s has been considered ‘Victorian revival’ in style and often resembles Victorian mourning jewellery. The practice of wearing mourning jewellery, however, ceased in the early 1900s, so these later pieces are not considered true mourning accessories.