Last week whilst working at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I was given training on how to use the catalogue database software and encouraged to run some practice searches of the catalogue. Predictably one of the first searches I tried was ‘mourning’ which is how I discovered that the Birmingham Museums collection contains a fine selection of mourning jewellery dating from the 17th to 19th centuries. Although I already knew a little about mourning jewellery, I decided to explore the changing trends and styles more thoroughly and below is a summary of my research. I also wrote a post about the jewellery for the BMAG blog. All of the photos in this guide are of items in our collection, so I have also included some history about Birmingham’s role in the mourning jewellery trade too!
The earliest mourning rings often had a religious bearing, with images such as Christ on the Cross, the five wounds, the nails and whip (Hunter 1993).Memento mori jewellery appeared in the 16th century, with motifs including skeletons, coffins, skulls, worms and crossbones. Rings were common, but the motifs were used in every kind of ornament including brooches and pins, rosary pendants, necklace decorations and waist fobs (Warner 1986). The shank of the ring might be skeletons or coffins with a skull and cross bones bezel. There are also examples with a coffin bezel which opens to reveal the skeleton. The inside of the shank would be engraved with a motto such as ‘’Love my memory’, ‘When this you see, remember me’ or ‘Die to live’ (Hunter 1993) or simply ‘Memento Mori’ (Warner 1986). Memento mori jewellery was simply designed to be a reminder of death in the abstract- that one day we must all die, and was worn by the upper and middle classes (Warner 1986). Therefore Memento mori jewellery had a small exclusive clientele and was a mark of social status (Holm 2004).
In the 17th century similar motifs began to be used in jewellery which commemorated the death of specific individuals, a custom which grew rapidly after the death of Charles I in 1649 inspired royalist followers to wear jewellery in his memory. Locks of the King’s hair were prized and rings with his portrait on the bezel were produced, though often worn in secrecy (Luthi 1998).
The second half of the 17th century saw the production of memorial rings for distribution to friends and family after a funeral. When Samuel Pepys died in 1703, 123 rings were handed out in his memory. Stuart memorial jewellery included not just rings but also pendants, lockets and round slides (with two loops at the sides, worn on ribbon around the neck or sometimes wrist) and also buttons. The designs were usually a skull and cross bones or other death symbol on a background of silk or plaited hair under a faceted rock-crystal (quartz), sometimes gold wire was used to create a cipher (initials).
Some bezels were shaped like a skull or coffin. Gold bands were often decorated on the outside with black enamel skeletons and other emblems of death. Many rings also had enamelled designs on the back of the bezel. Inscriptions were always on the inside of the band. The edges of the gold were often decorated with a beaded or dogtooth design (Luthi 1998).
Although ‘morbid’ symbols of death continued to be used in English jewellery well into the 18th century, from the 1730s a lighter rococo style was also introduced from France (Hunter 1993).
The rococo style reflected changing attitudes towards death – increasing sentimentalization of death and a focus on the emotions of the mourner (Holm 2004). Rings from this period might still feature a faceted rock-crystal bezel, now with a ribbed gold back, but the shanks were divided into small scrolls and had inscriptions in raised gold lettering on the outside with enamel. Black enamel was still widely used, but white enamel was introduced for children and unmarried adults. There were also rings with no bezel which simply had a scrolled hoop, slim and rounded on the inside (Luthi 1998).
Slides might have edging with precious and semi-precious stones and the reverse was often decorated with coloured enamel, with scrolls or flowers in blue, green and red on a white background. The choice of stones had significance, garnets represented blood and pearls represented tears (Hunter 1993).
Scrolled gold and enamel were also used in pendants, which included heart shaped ones with a double sided rock-crystal compartment to contain a hair curl. Pendants with urns painted in sepia/grisaille were also popular. In general, there was a movement away from gruesome motifs towards neo-classical symbolism of death (Luthi 1998), with elegiac motives including gardens, trees and picturesque tombs or urns (Holm 2004). Rings often featured these neo-classical scenes painted in sepia/grisaille on ivory and these rings had a larger bezel (Luthi 1998).
Miniature portraits also featured in mourning jewellery, especially portraits of the eye, with a pearl surround to evoke tears (Warner 1986), sometimes the eyebrow would be braided from the hair of the deceased. More elaborate hair designs were also developed, including the popular image of a female figure mourning at the tomb, flowers, urns and weeping willows were also depicted. The end of the eighteenth century saw slides change shape to a pointed oval known as marquise or navette (Hunter 1993).
Inscriptions were also sometimes more romantic such as an example from the National Museum of Scotland which says ‘tis the survivor dies’ (Hunter 1993). In general, the mourning jewellery of the period was light and delicate, fitting with both the stylish white muslin gowns of the period, and its characteristically light moral tone (Warner 1986).
The long periods of formal mourning which were considered necessary during Victoria’s reign encouraged the popularity of mourning jewellery, especially pieces which used Whitby Jet (Luthi 1998). The wearing of jewellery was not usually strictly permitted during first or full mourning (Taylor 2009), but jet pieces without a highly polished surface were often worn (Hunter 1993) because they tied well with the sombre and lustreless appearance required from fabrics in deep mourning (hence the ubiquity of crape). In the early 19th century the use of blue and white enamel declined in favour of black enamel and garnets were superseded by faceted jet, although pearls remained popular. The marquise shape was out of fashion and brooches became oblong or oval. Gold rings with black enamel were still used, although the lettering became more elaborate, usually old English block capitals, with the all encompassing message ‘In memory of’ on the outside. Personalised inscriptions were usually added, but on the inside of the band.
In addition to gold jewellery, there were also mourning pieces made of iron or steel. The fashion for steelwork came from Germany, where at the beginning of the 19th century women were asked to give their gold jewellery to finance the war with France, and steel work pieces with the notation ‘Gold gab ich fur Eisen’ (I gave gold for iron) were produced in Berlin.
There was almost constant mourning during the 1850s and 1860s because of the Crimean War (1854-56), The Indian Mutiny in 1858 and Prince Albert’s death in 1861, and during this period mourning jewellery became more ostentatious. This was partly because a large market for mourning jewellery was created as more people could afford it, but also because the fashions of the day with crinoline dresses needed larger embellishments even during mourning (Hunter 1993).
Although jet dominated the mourning jewellery of the Victorian period, later many imitations were made from ‘French jet’ and vulcanite. French jet was black glass (which was brittle and required metal backing) it had a brilliant sparkle and was thus popular for evening wear (Hunter 1993) and beadwork (Warner 1986). Vulcanised rubber, known as gutta percha, ebonite or vulcanite, was moulded rather than carved, it could be black brown similar to bog oak (Warner 1986), or black in colour. Vulcanite was invented by Goodyear in the 1840s and could be almost indistinguishable from jet, although a good test is the insertion of a hot needle – jet gives off the smell of burning coal, but vulcanite smells like burning rubber (Hunter 1993). Bog oak, a natural material from Ireland was blackish brown in colour, was easily carved and could be polished to a soft sheen (Warner 1986). These imitations, initially introduced because the supply of Jet was limited and expensive (Warner 1986) became so popular that the Whitby jet trade began to decline from the 1870s (Hunter 1993).
Hair remained popular for mourning jewellery, and its strength and lightness made it another popular material for large adornments. Three dimensional arrangements and beads could be made by interweaving the hair and formed into earrings and necklaces – although the scratchiness of the hair would have made them uncomfortable unless worn over high necked dresses. Hair was braided for bracelets and watch chains. Hairwork was not strictly used for mourning (Warner 1986), but using the hair of a deceased loved one could act as a relic, keeping their memory alive to the wearer (Lutz 2011). In the mid-19th century many people became concerned that hairwork made by jewellers might not actually contain the hair of the deceased and so there was a vogue for ‘do it yourself’ with many pattern books published to allow women to make their own hair jewellery at home. Hair declined in popularity and had almost disappeared by the end of the 19th century, although it was still sometimes used for gentlemen’s watch chains (Warner 1986).
In the mid 19th century swivel brooches were invented and soon became popular for mourning as a hair box could be created on one side and a photograph on the other. ‘Jet’ lockets were also popular, often they had hair on one hair and a photograph on the other, although if the photograph was of a parent, the other side was usually left empty – reserved for the other parent’s death. Gradually the introduction of the photograph led to the demise of hair as a symbol of mourning. By the end of the 19th century boat shaped brooches were fashionable, as were bars of onyx with a pearl in a star setting, the reverse of which was a hair box, although often they remained empty.
In general formal mourning rules became relaxed after the end of court mourning for Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Although mourning wear was still worn by respectable women during First World War, the scale of loss was so great – almost everyone had suffered bereavement, and so the custom seemed to lose its meaning. After The Great War few vestiges of mourning custom remained and ‘jewellery had ceased to symbolise the loss of a dear one’ (Warner 1986; 59). Examples of mourning jewellery from the early 20th century are extremely rare, and by the mid 20th century many pieces of mourning jewellery could be found in antiques shops, as the destruction of homes in the second world war lead to clearing out of these old fashioned pieces which ‘would certainly not fit into the ‘brave new world’ that was anticipated’ (Hunter 1993; 9).
Birmingham and Mourning Jewellery
Metalwares had been made in Birmingham since medieval times, and by the mid 18th century the town had a reputation for the production of small metal goods including boxes, trinkets and jewellery – collectively known as ‘toys’ and also buckles, buttons and brassworking. These trades grew rapidly during the 18th century earning the town nicknames such as ‘toy shop of Europe’ and ‘workshop of the world’. Not only were there skilled craftsmen in Birmingham, the town was ideally situated close to sources of iron ore and coal in South Staffordshire and Worcestershire making it a convenient centre for manufacturing.
Most of the artisans worked in small family firms with workshops in attics and back gardens in the town centre (Cattell and Hawkins 2000). In 1746 an Act of Parliament allowing the development of the part of the Colmore Estate to the north west of the centre, attracted many of these small manufacturers to relocate (Haddleton 1987). Many small masters occupied modest terraced and semi-detached houses which had a workshop in the body of the house. More successful masters built houses with family living quarters at the front and workshops at the rear. The continued development of this area lead to the formation of the ‘jewellery quarter’ by the 1820s. Although some larger factories were built, the production of many of these small items did not need steam-power, with only hand-tools used and so small workshops continued to thrive (Cattell and Hawkins 2000).
The mid-19th century saw a growing fashion for jewellery of all kinds, especially gold because of the gold rushes in Australia and California and the introduction of 9, 12 and 15 carat gold alloys. Many ‘toy’ makers with relevant skills switched to making jewellery (Cattell and Hawkins 2000), each workshop focusing on one process such as chain making or diamond mounting (Haddleton 1987). The interdependence of these sub-divided firms meant that clustering together in the jewellery quarter made strong economic sense (Cattell and Hawkins 2000). It also made the jewellery industry in Birmingham highly adaptable.
This adaptability of the jewellery trade in Birmingham during the 19th century allowed mourning jewellery from materials such as jet, onyx and bog oak to be made both in high quality for discerning markets, but also affordable jewellery for markets which had expanded to include the better-off members of the working-class (Carnevali 2003). However the quality of the products made in Birmingham was such that at the height of jewellery manufacture in 1913 the output of high class jewellery exceeded in value that of cheap jewellery. This was thanks in part of promotion and protection of the trade by the British Jewellers Association (founded in 1887) and also the support of Royal patrons, such as Queen Victoria who agreed to wear selected items of Birmingham jewellery on important occasions during the depression of 1885-6, successfully reviving fashion and demand for high quality jewellery (Haddleton 1987).
Carnevali, F. 2003, ‘Golden Opportunities: Jewelry Making in Birmingham between Mass Production and Specialty’, Enterprise and Society, vol 4, issue 2, pp 272-298
Cattell, J. and Hawkins, B. 2000, The Birmingham Jewellery quarter; An introduction and guide, English Heritage, London.
Haddleton, M. E. 1987, The Jewellery Quarter; History and Guide (2nd edition), YBA Publications, Birmingham.
Holm, C. 2004, ‘Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair’, Eighteenth-century studies, vol 38, issue 1, pp 139-143.
Hunter, M. 1993, ‘Mourning jewellery; A Collector’s Account’, Costume, vol 27, issue 1, pp 9 – 22
Luthi, A. L. 1998, Sentimental jewellery; Antique jewels of love and sorrow, Shire books; Princes Risborough
Lutz, D. 2011, ‘The dead still among us: Victorian secular relics, hair jewelry and death culture’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 39, pp 127-142.
Taylor, L. 2009, Mourning Dress; A Costume and Social History, Routledge; Abingdon.
Warner, P. 1986. ‘Mourning and Memorial Jewelry of the Victorian Age’, Dress, vol 12, issue 1, pp 55-60.