Mourning Jewelry: Honoring the Dead by What We Wear

In the spirit of October and the fast-approaching Halloween holiday as well as this cold and rainy day, I thought I would write a few words about some of the ways people have expressed mourning through they jewelry they wear.

Examples of mourning jewelry made from carved Jet are many. It was made fashionable by its use in the extensive and public mourning wardrobe of Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.

Jet (lignite) is not a true mineral but a mineraloid. It has an organic origin, derived from decaying wood under high pressure. Salt water and carbon compression makes for hard jet while fresh water results in soft. Jet from Whitby, England is most famous, prized for its deep blackness and a greater potential for shine than other material which is sometimes dull. Whitby jet, in particular, started life as wood from the early Jurassic age and is approximately 182 million years old! Electrically conductive like amber, and is sometimes called “black amber,” and gives off the odor of burning coal if touched with a hot needle.

mined jet in its natural form
mined jet in its natural form

The Romans, from the third century AD onward, preferred jet and likely procured it while beachcombing as opposed to mining. They considered it a magical material that could deflect the “evil eye” and used it in amulets and pendants.

jet brooch representing hand clutching snake
jet brooch representing hand clutching snake

From The History Chicks blog, a jet locket.

jet picture locket
jet picture locket

And this intricately carved brooch is made all the more impressive because of jet’s delicacy. Because of its relative softness (2.5-4 on the Mohs scale of hardness), jet is easy to carve, but very difficult to render in fine detail.  Check out Wikipedia for more details!

Carved jet brooch
Carved jet brooch

Another common practice was the use of the deceased’s hair, or hairwork, in various kinds of jewelry. Used in intricate patters, braided, used as thread in detailed embroideries, and hidden in lockets, the presence of a dead loved one’s hair was a lasting tribute.  The modern tradition of cutting a lock of a baby’s hair to keep is still in place, but the used of the deceased’s is not. The production of hair jewelry extended beyond mourning into the general fashion as well.

Georgian era mourning bracelet made of hair.
Georgian era mourning bracelet made of hair.

Below is an example of the used of hair in embroidery found on the Morbid Anatomy blog. Fittingly, it forms the boughs of a weeping willow.

hair mourning jewelry with embroidered weeping willow
hair mourning jewelry with embroidered weeping willow
Mourning jewelry
Mourning necklace made of hair

Skulls and skeletons are another symbol of death and mourning and there are very many extraordinary examples. It is an obvious but macabre reminder of human mortality.

gold and enamel skeleton ring
gold and enamel skeleton ring

This next example comes from  the Les Bijoux Indiscrets blog.

skull mourning ring in gold and enamel
skull mourning ring in gold and enamel
17th century skeleton human hair mourning ring from the Birmingham Museum
17th century skeleton human hair mourning ring from the Birmingham Museum

 

These are just a sliver of what beauty and craftsmanship is to be found in mourning jewelry and attire. There is a bottomless well of examples of this strange but beautiful subset of fashion and jewelry.

Maybe it is my sentimental and poetical nature, but I have always been fascinated by death and the things that surround it. Modern day has made mourning less of an art and more of an anemic act. People seem to tolerate it more than take part in it; busy and irritated, we scrounge to find that black suit in the back of the closet. Perhaps they took it too far in the past, but is it possible that we don’t take it far enough? Are we missing something deep and potentially healing through the truncation of mourning in a public and physical way? Maybe we could take a few notes from those who elevated mourning to an art.

***

Here are some interesting facts about mourning clothes:

  • Wearing unadorned black or or dark colored clothing dates back to the Roman times with the woolen toga pulla, “grey gown.”
  • Widows in some parts of the world (Spain, Russia, Italy, Portugal, and Mexico among others) were expected to wear black for the remainder of their lives.
  • White was the deepest color of mourning among the queens of medieval Europe.
  • Mourning fashion was dictated by a set of complex rules developed by the upper classes. Women’s mourning clothing was heavy, black and concealing, punctuated by veils of black crepe. This clothing was colloquially known as “widows weeds” and the women were expected to wear these for up to four years after their husband’s death. After those four years of “full morning”, they could move to “half mourning” and its subdued tones of lavender, purple and grey.
  • Black armbands were worn a sign of mourning for those in uniform  and select others including children.

2 thoughts on “Mourning Jewelry: Honoring the Dead by What We Wear”

  1. Terrific post however , Iwas wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
    Kudos!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *