Friday, October 25, 2013

Freeform Friday - Victorian mourning jewelry

I love Halloween. I love the dark and mysterious, cauldrons, witches, the wheel of the year turning to winter. We have discussed the Day if the Dead here recently and I decided to take topics a wee bit darker for the next two weeks - leading up to Halloween and All Soul's Day/All Saint's Day. 

The topic was inspired by a conversation I was having over at, a podcast of which I am part. We were embracing the dark, maybe morbid topics for the month of October - things like momento mori, and ... hair jewelry. So I was inspired to research both Victorian hair jewelry and mourning jewelry styles. 

Mourning jewelry

Mourning jewelry provides the wearer with a physical object by which to memorialize a lost loved one; providing comfort and acting as a momento mori.  Some of the earliest examples date back to the 15th/16th century. Items found in Europe from this era include black and white enamel pieces, often skulls, set into rings and brooches. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries it became a mark of status to wear mourning jewelry for deceased loved ones. The height of the style came in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert died in 1861; she dressed in black for the remainder of her days. In the US at this time, the Civil War helped increase the popularity of mourning jewelry - as to be expected...

The five daughters of Prince Albert wore black dresses and posed for a portrait with his statue following his death in 1861.

Victorian mourning attire was strictly regimented: 

  • "Full mourning"  - 1 year long. Full black, weeping veil. No adornment. 
  • The transitional period allowed for minor adornment including mourning jewelry. This transitional stage was 9 months. 
  • "Half mourning" - 3-6 months. Any jewelry allow. Colors could include grey, violet, mauve, deep reds... 

Types of mourning jewelry

coffin ring from 1715  - crystal coffin shape over skull and hair work

Rings and brooches were the most common forms of mourning jewelry, usually inscribed with the name, date of death and age of the deceased. Popular motifs included funeral urns and weeping women in a Neo-Classical style. Hair was often used, under glass, intricately woven... ( More on that next week)
Images from
Enamel brooch, jet and hair brooch, carved jet brooch. 


Jet is a mineraloid, derived from fossilized wood. It is ultra black, smooth and lightweight.  It has been used since Ancient Greece circa 200 BCE. The Venerable Bede says this about British jet: "Britain has much excellent jet... black and sparkling, glittering at the fire, and when hearted drives serpents away..." Superstition had it that jet was shiny enough to avert the evil eye.

The town of Whitby is known for its jet, although jet occurs in other regions. Whitby jet is from the Jurassic era - app. 182 million years old. Whitby was a popular Victorian seaside destination, and the Whitby jet trade started as a souvenir industry. After Prince Albert's death, Queen Victoria's mourning regimen helped to increase jet's popularity. The rise of jet's popularity saw shops carving and selling jet jewelry in town go from 50 workshops in 1850 - to 200 shops in 1873! It is currently illegal to mine jet in Whitby, as it has been over mined and the shale based cliffs are rather unstable. Contemporary jet carvers are working with pieces washed up on shore that have naturally sloughed off the jet lines in the cliffs.

Stay tuned next week for more of the morbidly fascinating, the dark Gothic, the hair jewelry... 




  1. Great post! and really interesting to read some of the history behind the ideas. They are beautiful works of art even if the subject is a bit dark... looking forward to next time!

  2. Fascinating, I learned some new things. I have a few small antique jet beads that I am hoarding.

  3. Interesting post! This brought back memories. My parents collected antiques, and I went to many, many shows as a kid. I remember being especially creeped out by the hair jewelry! Perfect topic for this time of year!

  4. So interesting Jenny - cn't wait for the next instalment...

  5. my mother passed in Feb, I made a seed beaded pendant using a stone from a ring she always wore...hmmm. Thanks for the post!

  6. So glad someone else thought it was interesting! I have a chunk of Whitby jet, a gift from a stone collector. I wondered at the time why she was so insistent on telling me it was Whitby jet...


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