Many people believe that in late October, the veil that separates our world from the spirit realm is the thinnest. So, what better time to discuss Victorian mourning jewelry? In the 19th century, mourning wasn’t just about grief. It also encapsulated love, sentimentality, and remembrance. From miniature urns, to locks of hair, mourning jewelry was an essential part of Victorian fashion.
1861 was a sad year for Queen Victoria. In the same year, she suffered the death of both her mother and her beloved husband, Prince Albert. Queen Victoria went into a period of mourning that would last decades. She adorned herself in black crepe and certain wearable mementos that would come to be known as mourning jewelry. Even in this dark period, Queen Victoria was still a style trendsetter, and it wasn’t long before this type of jewelry skyrocketed in popularity.
To the Victorians, mourning was more about sentimentality than misery. Mourning jewelry was used as a tribute or memento to remind the wearer about their love for the person they had lost. Death was a regular occurrence in Victorian times, thanks to pervasive diseases like cholera and scarlet fever. For this reason, the loss of a loved one was not a shocking event, but a sad part of everyday life. In true Victorian fashion, the jewelry that represented this facet of life was symbolic and sentimental. Mourning jewelry included lockets, crosses, urns, cameos, flowers, and other romantic symbols of loved ones.
A miniature urn dangles from this gold mourning brooch.
A popular material used in mourning jewelry was jet. Jet is a kind of black fossil of wood or hard coal. It is quite soft, which made it suitable for carving into jewelry components. Mined in Whitby, England, jet was a slow industry for much of the 19th century, until the fashionability of mourning jewelry in the 1870’s propelled it to popularity. By the 1880’s, other dark materials became popular in jewelry making, such as gutta percha (a kind of tree resin), French jet (actually black glass), bog oak (a brown peat-like material), vulcanite (a kind of rubber), dark tortoiseshell, black onyx, and black enamel.
A remarkable piece in our collection: a finely woven hair necklace from the Victorian Era.
Also popular during this time was hair jewelry. These would either be lockets containing a lock of hair, or jewelry that was itself made from braided or woven hair. This style of jewelry was unique in that it could be made at home. Magazines, such as a Godey’s Lady’s Book, provided detailed instructions on how to prepare and weave hair for use in jewelry or home decor. After the maker wove the hair, it could be sent to a jeweler who would add findings to make it wearable. Human hair was well suited to this practice, because it is resistant to decay. Unfortunately, once mourning jewelry fell out of style after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the practice of hair weaving became a lost art. Although this style of jewelry may seem unusual to us today, to the Victorians, it was the perfect sentimental way to remain close to a loved one.
A gold band from the Victorian Era inset with woven hair.