The Fascinating History of Mourning Jewelry

The Fascinating History of Mourning Jewelry

Mourning jewelry is a tradition steeped in history, often intricate and beautiful, carrying stories of grief, love, and memory across centuries. Let's explore the fascinating history of mourning jewelry, from its ancient origins to its peak in the Victorian era, and its evolution in modern designs.

The Role of Mourning Jewelry

The practice of wearing mourning jewelry offers insight into societal attitudes toward death, the importance of remembrance, and the ways in which people have coped with loss throughout history. Mourning jewelry is a unique genre of personal adornment, worn to commemorate the deceased. These pieces often include symbols of death, such as skulls, urns, and weeping willows, and are crafted from materials like jet, human hair, and black enamel.

Ancient Origins

The tradition of mourning jewelry dates back to ancient civilizations, where people used various forms of jewelry to honor and remember the dead.

Necklace of Amulets, 1980-1801 B.C. Carnelian, feldspar, and amethyst, Source - Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, jewelry played a significant role in funerary practices. The Egyptians believed in an afterlife, where the deceased would need their earthly possessions. This jewelry, often found in tombs, included amulets and charms inscribed with protective symbols to ensure safe passage to the afterlife.

Ancient Rome

The Romans also had their mourning customs, which included the use of jewelry. Women would wear dark clothes and mourning rings, often inscribed with the name of the deceased and phrases like "Ave atque vale" (Hail and farewell).

The Middle Ages to the Renaissance

During the middle ages, jewelry became more subdued, reflecting the era's somber attitude toward death. However, the Renaissance brought a resurgence of interest in commemorative items. In medieval Europe, the focus was on religious symbols and the afterlife. Mourning jewelry from this period often featured crosses, saints, and angels, reflecting the deep Christian faith of the time.

Reliquary Pendant, c. 1550-1600 - Source - Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance era saw a revival of classical themes and a fascination with humanism, influencing mourning jewelry design. Pieces became more elaborate, incorporating portrait miniatures and more intricate symbolism.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Mourning jewelry gained significant popularity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in England, where it became an integral part of mourning customs.

Stuart and Georgian England

The death of Queen Mary II in 1694 and the subsequent widespread mourning set of precedent for the use of mourning jewelry in England. During this period, mourning jewelry often featured black enamel and detailed engravings.

Known as "memento mori" jewelry, these pieces served as reminders of mortality and the transient nature of life.

An enameled gold ring with memento mori motifs. The central motif is an open book with a text from Philippians 1-21: 'To live is my Christ, to die is my gain'. On the shoulder of the ring a winged figure on the left and a skull and crossbones on the right. Below that a time glass/hourglass. On the inside of the ring is an inscription: 'our life is a shadow on earth,' c. 1620-1650 - Source - Wikimedia Commons

The Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century saw the rise of neoclassicism, influencing the design of mourning jewelry. Pieces became more refined, featuring classical motifs and a focus on simplicity and elegance.

  • Symbolizing the soul's departure from the body, urns became a common feature in mourning jewelry.
  • Painted on ivory or enamel, these portraits were often encased in gold or silver frames, sometimes surrounded by pearls symbolizing tears.

The Victorian Era: The Golden Age of Mourning Jewelry

The Victorian era (1837-1901) marked the peak of mourning jewelry's popularity, driven in large part by Queen Victoria's prolonged mourning for her husband, Prince Albert. Her choice to wear black clothing and mourning jewelry for the rest of her life had a profound impact on mourning customs. This period saw the creation of some of the most elaborate and symbolic pieces of mourning jewelry. 

Common symbols included weeping willos (grief), doves (peace), and forget-me-nots (remembrance).

"Sacred to the Memory of 5 Children" Mourning Ring, circa 1800,  Source - Wikimedia Commons

Intricately braided or woven hair of the deceased was used to create rings, brooches, and necklaces, often accompanied by inscriptions of love and remembrance.

Georgian Yellow Gold Mourning Ring, 1813 with the inscription "EDWD Russel OB 27 Nov. 1813 AET 16"

The Victorian era's fascination with death and mourning was part of a broader cultural context that included elaborate funerary practices and a heightened interest in symbolism.

The early 20th century saw a decline in the popularity of mourning jewelry. The world was changing rapidly, and the somber traditions of the Victorian era began to feel out of step with the modern age. World War I and the subsequent societal shifts also played a role in changing attitudes towards death and mourning. The elaborate rituals of the past were replaced by more restrained practices.

The Resurgence of Mourning Jewelry

Today, mourning jewelry has found a niche market among collectors and enthusiasts. Antique pieces are highly sought after, valued for their historical significance and unique beauty. There's also a growing interest in contemporary mourning jewelry, with artists and designers creating modern pieces that pay homage to traditional themes while incorporating new materials and techniques.

If you're lucky enough to own a piece of antique mourning jewelry, wearing it can be a beautiful way to connect with the past.


Georgian Yellow Gold, Pearl, and Enamel Mourning Ring inscribed "W. Spitty, died 9 March 1827 Aged 70"

With its intricate designs and deep emotional resonance, mourning jewelry offers a unique window into the past, reflecting how different cultures have grappled with grief and remembrance over the centuries. As attitudes toward death continue to evolve, mourning jewelry continues to serve as a reminder of the human need to honor and remember those who have passed, bridging the gap between past and present in a profoundly personal and meaningful way.