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 passed away from 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 personal style choices influenced a fashionable jewelry trend. Mourning jewelry emphasized sentimental mementos that memorialized departed loved ones. Common materials used were natural minerals such as Whitby Jet, onyx, hematite, garnet, gutta percha, and pearls. Many mourning jewelry styles have a similar color theme pattern of being black, gold, or white enamel. Interestingly, white enamel on pieces often symbolized unmarried women or children.
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 as well. Mourning clothing and jewelry became a sensational style of choice and fashion preference to many.
(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 & 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.
Perhaps one of the most famous forms of Victorian Era mourning mementos were hair jewelry. This included saving strands or locks of a loved one's hair and then placing it in necklaces, bracelets, rings, pins, and other accessory types. 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 as well.
In modern times, some people may cringe at the idea of 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 years old, and there were numerous illness epidemics and wars that plagued the society. Therefore, death was always a constant reminder and loved ones coped with this by keeping sentimental keepsakes of their dearly departed, which was considered sacred.
Although mourning jewelry is a fascinating trend of the past, presently many antique collectors and Victorian enthusiasts seek mourning jewelry mementos. There are also many trending Victorian revival jewelry accessories, and many of these reproduction styles were greatly inspired by original mourning jewelry. In fact, 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 rare and important to preserve these heirlooms for historical reference as well.