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Why Was Mourning Jewelry So Popular?: How Queen Victoria's Grief Created a Jewelry Sensation

Tanzy Ward


Although the tradition of wearing 'mourning' jewelry dates to least the memento mori accessories of the Middle Ages, the period most associated with the aesthetic is the Grand Era (c.1861-c.1881) of Queen Victoria's reign (c.1837-1901). The Grand Era began when Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid fever. She went into deep mourning and wore long black crepe dresses and mostly black mourning jewelry for the remainder of her life. Queen Victoria was an admired iconic figure, and her style choices influenced a fashionable jewelry trend. Mourning jewelry emphasized sentimental mementos that memorialized departed loved ones. Natural minerals such as Whitby Jet, onyx, hematite, garnet, gutta-percha, and pearls were commonly used. Many mourning jewelry styles have a similar color pattern: black, gold, or white enamel. Interestingly, white enamel on pieces often symbolized unmarried women or children.

(Portrait of Queen Victoria and Husband Prince Albert With Children. Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, by Franz Xavier Winterhalter)


 In antique photography during the Victorian Era, many daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes showcased women wearing long black dresses, veiled lace head coverings, and tinted gold jewelry with black ornament designs. These images usually represented women in mourning or grieving, although it was common for people to wear this style for non-sentimental fashion choices.  Mourning clothing and jewelry became many's sensational styles of choice and fashion preference.  

Mourning Fashion and Etiquette in the Victorian Era

(Queen Victoria After The Passing of Prince Albert, Pictured Wearing Mourning Attire, Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace)

(Unidentified African American woman in Victorian Attire, Georgia Division of Archives and History. Hallman Bros. Photography (c.1900's)

 Common mourning jewelry symbols of the Victorian Era were softer than the vivid image of mortality during the Middle Ages. Victorian Era mourning jewelry symbols included intricately etched floral motifs, black enamel with pearl seeds, lady cameo images with gold-plated settings, and simple strands of black necklaces created from semiprecious stones and minerals. 
Hair jewelry was one of the most famous forms of Victorian Era mourning mementos. This included saving strands or locks of a loved one's hair and placing them in necklaces, bracelets, rings, pins, and other accessories. The hair lockets would sometimes be created into memorial art, which included intricate scenic designs or braided into chains for watches and pendants. Saving a loved one's hair strands symbolized immortality and having something that contained a somewhat imperishable essence of the person. Memorial jewelry and art became an increasingly popular trend in England and greatly influenced the United States. 
Queen Victoria's mourning brooch containing Albert's hair (1867 ...
(Queen Victoria's Mourning Brooch Containing Prince Albert's Hair, Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace)

In modern times, some people may cringe at mourning jewelry, and you probably won't see hair lockets or other Victorian mourning accessories displayed casually at jewelry stores. However, one must understand the reasoning and events that inspired the mourning jewelry trend during the 19th century.  During the Victorian Era, the expected age range was 40-45, and numerous illness epidemics and wars plagued society. Therefore, death was always a constant reminder, and loved ones cope by keeping sentimental keepsakes of their dearly departed, which were considered sacred.

(Antique Victorian French Jet Mourning Bracelet. Zanathia Jewelry Collection)


Although mourning jewelry is a fascinating trend of the past, many antique collectors and Victorian enthusiasts seek mourning jewelry mementos. There are also many trending Victorian revival jewelry accessories, and many reproduction styles were greatly inspired by original mourning jewelry. Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most highly sought-after antique jewelry styles. Many of these Victorian mourning jewelry pieces are practical and modernly refreshing to wear. Victorian mourning jewelry is not only sentimental to the events and stories attached to it, but it is also rare and essential to preserving these heirlooms for historical reference. 

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