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Where did mourning jewellery come from?

Bhavna Patel

Posted on August 27 2019

Where did mourning jewellery come from?

How long has remembrance jewellery been around?

Though it’s often associated with the Victorians, mourning jewellery has a much longer tradition than many people realise. Just think of prehistoric burial barrows and ancient Egyptian crypts - how much of the treasure inside was jewellery made to commemorate the person’s passing?

Though many of the meanings behind these ancient rituals have been lost, we know a lot about the symbols and words different cultures used to wish their loved ones well in the afterlife, as many such traditions survive in different forms today.

Since then, memorial jewellery, and related “Memento Mori” jewellery, has undergone a myriad of transformations before assuming the form we offer you today.

 

For a long time, memorial jewellery was all about hair.

 

The clearest examples we have of mourning jewellery from the 14th century onwards are made from human hair. While today we choose ashes and photographs to preserve, until comparatively recently jewellery made from hair was the most reliable and personal option for remembrance.

Hair was braided into watch chains, mixed into enamel paint, and encased in diamond inside beautiful mourning rings. Even William Shakespeare is supposed to have issued several such rings in his will. With the correct treatment and protection from insects, hair can last an extremely long time. Many such pieces in collections are still in perfect condition today.

 

What about Memento Mori jewellery?

 

A Memento Mori is a piece of artwork which reminds the owner of their mortality and the value of the life they’re living. Sometimes, Memento Mori jewellery doubled up as bereavement jewellery, but often these pieces were created for their own purpose entirely. It may seem like a strange concept today, but many of us enjoy books, films, and music about loss in a very similar way!

 

What kind of mourning jewellery did the Victorians wear?

 

Victorian mourning jewellery typically took the form of rings. These rings usually featured black enamel or a black stone such as jet and were worn as part of the strict dress codes associated with Victorian mourning traditions. Occasionally, white enamel and stone were used to commemorate a child or someone who died unmarried.

The whole practice of Victorian mourning jewellery and dress was probably heavily influenced by Queen Victoria, who publically mourned the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, for decades before her own passing.

With the advent of photography in the late 1800s, lockets became an affordable and accessible way for everyday people to remember their loved ones - a tradition which still stands today.

 Although bereavement jewellery fell out of favour for a while during the 20th century, there was a brief resurgence in 1940s America, where mourning rings were made from bakelite!

 

Mourning jewellery looks very different today.

 

Today’s jewellery carries a very different meaning from the sombre tone of the Victorians. The pieces we make and wear now are more about love and healing. We favour bright colours, shining stones, and warmth of style. This is jewellery for loving remembrance, rather than black grief.

Rather than being restricted to hair and photographs, as cremation technology advances we are able to take loved one’s ashes - their most basic essence - and turn them into beautiful pieces which can be worn and loved forever. There are methods to suit any budget, from sealed lockets for ashes, to suspending ashes in resin or glass. Some companies are even able to compress your loved one’s remains into an actual diamond!

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