Let’s say it’s the year 1861. You’re living in London and you’re enjoying all of the things that the new “Industrial Revolution” has brought with it. This revolution has made it much easier for commoners, like you and I, to afford some of life’s luxuries. Luxuries like jewelry, that had, up until now, been reserved for the well-heeled and wealthy. Just as you’re preparing to celebrate the Christmas season, terrible news sweeps the country. Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, has died with the Queen and five of their nine children at his side.
Mourning Jewelry: It All Starts With The Death of A Prince
The deeply distraught Queen all but disappears from her daily duties and her country mourns with her. With her reign had come a new era in jewelry – The Victorian Era – besotted with cameos and lockets. After Albert’s death, lockets and now paintings in miniature to be worn were all the rage. There was very limited photography available at the time, so the best way to remember your loved one? Have their image painted on a piece of jewelry to be worn during the requisite period of mourning. Or better, yet, add a piece of their hair to a locket or a painting of their eye to your brooch (that way they’d always be watching).
One of today’s leading experts on mourning jewelry and other mourning symbolism is Hayden Peters. Hayden is the driving force behind the website The Art Of Mourning and I reached out to him to get his take on mourning jewelry in the Victorian period.
“Mourning jewellery during the Victorian period reached its height when it became appropriated into popular fashion through the death of Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria in 1861, and her subsequent mourning period that lasted the remainder of her life. The jewels were mass produced and relied on the ability to be both obvious in their symbolism and their sentiment. Hair was woven into both mourning and sentimental jewels, forming chains, rings and brooches, combining with the popular black enamel and statements such as ‘IN MEMORY OF’.”
“Burial societies would be paid during one’s lifetime to have jewels produced at the time of death for family and friends, which was the social expectation. Widows and family members were required to enter into the stages of mourning, which would govern social behaviour for several years, until it was appropriate to emerge into society. The jewels were not always worn, but kept as keepsakes for the loved one, which is why many still exist in pristine condition today.”
Macabre? Maybe. A sign of love? Most likely. Something unique to collect and serve as conversation pieces at cocktail parties? Definitely. For more on mourning traditions and Victorian Mourning Jewelry in particular, In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry by Sarah Nehama is a fantastic resource, as is Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing, & Customs by Mary Brett.