In this interview, historian and art director Hayden Peters charts the evolution of mourning jewelry from the 16th century through its most prolific period during the reign of Queen Victoria. Along the way, he discusses how mourning jewelry differs from sentimental jewelry, and highlights such genres as hairwork, miniature portraiture, and symbolism. Based in Australia, Peters can be contacted via his website, www.artofmourning.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
Growing up with antiques collectors and costume designers, I developed a passion for the Victorian age and the 19th century. I collected Victorian silver—bracelets, watches, and other things. I worked very hard to pay as much as I could for the best pieces I could find. My interest in jewelry, especially memorial and sentimental jewelry, began when I saw a ring with “in memory of” engraved on the top. I thought it was a wonderful symbol of affection to wear for a loved one. This ring was from 1852 and belonged to a woman named Mary Ann Lewis. I traced her genealogy and tried to learn as much as I could about the time period of the ring.
Soon I was collecting necklaces, rings, and bracelets, and that led to the world of sentimental and cultural history. I kept going further back and ended up specializing in the period from about 1500 to 1920. I’ve now been collecting for about 18 years.
My collection is very cross-cultural. Especially with memorial pieces, the history of one piece really reflects culturally upon another. In colonial times, the Americans were quite good at appropriating or bringing over the motifs and symbols of the English pieces. Protestants, obviously, held true to a lot of the tenets in England. Then they started to adapt it and work in their own motifs. Obviously the French have a different take on it, the Germans as well.
As you go south through the European Continent toward Catholic-based regions, the symbols on mourning jewelry included more religious, cross-like imagery. The southern European way of coping with grief was different from the northern countries.
There were also commonalities, especially where hairwork was concerned. For example, it can be difficult to tell whether a piece was made in either New York or London. But table-worked hair, mourning samplers, and other pieces could also be regional, offering unique perspectives on their culture. Thus, a Swiss piece from the mid-19th century can easily be identified by its hairwork—the way it used thick braids and things. These pieces were all made at home.
Collectors Weekly: What are the differences between mourning, memorial, and sentimental jewelry?
Peters: Memorial pieces were made for public events related to a death. Mourning jewelry was usually a little more personal. While several pieces might be made for someone’s death, it was still for the family or people close to the deceased.
The early precursors to mourning jewelry displayed the skull and crossbones and all those memento mori, remember-you-will-die motifs. Shakespeare commissioned mourning rings. But the mourning rings from the 1500s and 1600s the skull and crossbones and those motifs as a statement of living. It meant ‘yes, you would be judged at the end, so live your life correctly’. A skull and crossbones was not always about death.
I think that’s one reason why sentimental jewelry is the most misunderstood of all jewelry, especially when mourning comes into it. A lot of people think it’s morbid and maybe grisly, but it’s not. Honoring someone’s life with a piece of mourning jewelry is one of the most beautiful things you can do for somebody. I can’t stand the negative connotations. And sometimes it’s hard to differentiate whether a piece is for mourning the death of a loved one or just a token of affection.
A typical sentimental piece is a locket with hair in it. You might see a neoclassical portrait or symbol from the late 18th century. In the 19th century mourning and memorial pieces were fashionable. Wearing someone else’s hair was pretty typical. It had been going on since the 14th century, and even back to ancient Rome.
Often the sentimental stuff is really unusual. Like the “regard” rings, with rubies, emeralds, amethysts, garnets, and diamonds, or “dearest” rings, with diamonds, emeralds, amethysts, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and topaz—the first letter of each stone spells out the word “regard” or the “dearest.” Those pieces, obviously, were not for mourning. They were sentimental pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Did sentimental and mourning jewelry happen at the same time?
Peters: Yes. The practice kicked in after the death of Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649. That’s when symbols of mourning, the culture of mourning, and the industry to produce the objects really hit their stride. A lot of royalists wore his portraits. The pieces that showed him looking upward symbolized his death.
But there were also pieces made when he was alive in which he was looking ahead and laughing. This sort of sentimental jewelry was worn around the same time, so you can’t really say one predates the other. And they were certainly simultaneous as far as it being an industry.
Collectors Weekly: How were cultural influences reflected in mourning and sentimental jewelry?
Peters: Jewelry as an art form, a wearable piece of art, and an expression of a person evolved with the culture. Usually fashion dictated the artistic paradigm shifts in a country, and that often flowed through to other countries. What people wore reflected the art and the mass entertainment and media of the time.
The Baroque period extended from the 16th to the 18th centuries, so the jewelry from that time took on all the elements of the period. The Baroque aesthetic was promoted as a way of subjugating people and getting them to see the grandeur of God. The jewelry simply appropriated all these wonderful flourishes. There were lots of organic imagery and nature motifs, floral patterns, and detailed gold work.
By about the 18th century, jewelry started to embrace Rococo, as seen in all those little scrollwork shanks. Ring bands that once would have been plain and circular started to take on more fluid lines. The biggest shift came in the neoclassical period, which changed everything and is probably the most radical shift.
On my website you can see the evolution. For example, rings at one stage were just bands with a memento around the side, frequently the name of someone who died. Then, all of a sudden, all these wonderful cameo rings appear. They featured an oval ring mounted on the band with a piece of ivory inside and a miniature portrait, or some sort of neoclassical depiction, painted on top.
Just like that, the religious symbols were all but gone. There might be a miniature on a ring in the form of a cypress tree pointing towards the heavens. Or the piece might have a weeping willow, or perhaps broken and unbroken columns.
The pieces kept getting bigger. Large pendants, for example, began to be worn on the exterior of the person. The neoclassical costumes started to reflect this—the earrings, bracelets, and other things. This trend was also a reflection of personal wealth and the growth of the middle classes, who had started to make money. Jewelry wasn’t just for the aristocracy anymore. There was more wealth, so more people wanted to show it off.
In the early 19th century, the neoclassical style went even more high-end. George IV was very decadent. Before he became George IV, he fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert. They were married in 1785, but it was annulled under the Royal Marriages Act because Maria was a Catholic and a widow. But George loved her, so he had a portrait made by the court miniaturist of her eye and part of her nose. He wore it in a locket underneath his lapel to hide his passion. And he didn’t show Maria’s full face in order to keep her anonymous.
“In the mid-19th century, 50 tons of hair a year were imported to jewelers in the U.K. for hairwork pieces.”
That’s how eye portraiture became so popular between about 1790 and 1830, especially among young people. A lot of what happened in royalty became fashion. So if a king or queen took on a certain art or lifestyle or some sort of social tweak or change, people would start doing it, too.
Eye portraiture transcended sentimental and mourning jewelry. A lot of people think it was just a type of mourning jewelry, but it wasn’t. It’s only mourning if it’s set in a teardrop-shaped brooch or pendant, or if the eye is pointed up. Such pieces are very rare and hard to find.
The mourning industry received its biggest boost after Prince Albert died in 1861. When he passed on, Queen Victoria only allowed mourning wear and jewelry in court, and that influenced the fashion. The middle classes were now wealthier, and the mortality rates were high. Mourning was still a dreary, dull thing—people wearing black, crepe, and who knows what else—but it started to become more fashionable than it ever had been before.
This began to change in the 1880s when women started to shift away from being the center of the household and thus the center of mourning. That led to the feminist movement and the suffragettes about 20 years later. By the end of the 19th century, attention had shifted away from the mourning industry. People were tired of the same old thing. Even Victoria broke with convention and started to change later in her life.
The Victorians were very good at appropriating previous styles of art. There was neo-Gothic, neo-Rococo, even neo-Baroque. That’s why this jewelry has always represented the social mainstream version of art. As the periods changed, it took on the contemporary flourishes of the day. Hair mementos were hidden away underneath rings or held in glass compartments. The opulence of the neoclassical periods was out, while symbols such as tear-shaped pearls were used to represent the idea of mourning.
Collectors Weekly: How did the jewelry change at the beginning of the 1900s?
Peters: Mourning jewelry made of gold or pinchbeck—a brass gold-like alloy—with lots of black enamel was seen as unfashionable and dreary. The Nouveau period opened up a more freewheeling lifestyle and a different perspective on living. There was a total shift in communications and the global movement of people. There were changes in how cities developed, and the mobile social structure was much different than anything that had gone before. The folk-art aspect of this stuff, such as your mourning samplers, started to fade.
Then with the insanely high mortality rate of World War I, people began to reconsider whether they really wanted to spend so much of their lives so absorbed by death. Just before the war, the jewelry’s popularity was waning. After the war, the upswing you might expect in the mourning industry simply didn’t happen.
Aesthetically, though, it was really a good period. You begin to see pieces with just onyx and a diamond, or onyx and a pearl placed within a man’s ring.
Lockets from 1860 to 1880 are probably the most common examples of mourning or sentimental jewelry. That’s how a lot of dealers today make their money. You don’t have to wear it outside your clothes. It’s worn next to the heart. It’s closed, compartmentalized, and if you want to put someone in there you love, you can do so without breaking any social conventions. Lockets were popular during the ’20s and ’30s, and they still are today.
Things like rings, which can’t be hidden, have never regained their popularity. But people still make mourning jewelry. Hair-working industries still exist. I believe there is a shop in America and another in Sweden. There may be more. But you can’t simply walk into a jewelry store and say, “I want a mourning ring.” These days it’s much more common to buy the locket. In fact, locket patents from the 1880s are still in production.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite eras and types of mourning jewelry?
Peters: The 19th century for sure, Queen Victoria’s period, from 1851 to about 1880. Mourning jewelry was the height of fashion back then. In the 1940s and ’50s it’s fashionable again in some degree due to the high mortality rate during World War II.
As for type, I can walk into any junk store in the Czech Republic and usually find some sort of hairwork piece—a bracelet, necklace, anything really. Women did a lot of hairworking at home. Pieces found their way across borders. It was fashionable, and that was the key.
In the mid-19th century, 50 tons of hair a year were imported to jewelers in the U.K., just for the purpose of replicating colors schemes in hairwork pieces. Northern hair tends to be lighter while hair from places like France tends to be darker—the hairwork-jewelry industry needed both. Sisters in convents would grow their hair long, chop it off, and sell it. It was all treated and woven together.
Burial societies were wealthy and powerful back then. The insurance companies we have today developed from the burial societies of the 19th century. Even the poorest of the poor would give most of their wages to have a decent funeral and all the affectations of mourning. A pauper’s burial was socially unacceptable. What a concept! That’s incredibly 19th century.
I think mourning jewelry from earlier eras is prettier. There is some beautiful stuff from the burgeoning mourning industry in the late 17th century, especially the pieces with crystals or the cipher hairwork pieces with someone’s initials woven in. Then it evolved into the neoclassical stuff, which is beautiful, and not hard to come by.
But I’m a Victorian fan. Mourning jewelry of that era was made for people from any level of society. There were lots cheap pieces made in the 19th century, pieces with pinchbeck, which gave the jewelry a metallic flair.
Even if you were really poor you could afford to show your grief by having a ring made out of hair, perhaps with a little base metal buckle on top. It was a cheaper way of expressing mourning, and there were a lot of people to mourn. Life expectancy in Victorian England was 40 years. The death of children was quite common.
Collectors Weekly: From a collector’s standpoint is mourning jewelry from the Victorian era the most sought after?
Peters: I think what you collect is really personal. Some people gravitate more to the neoclassical stuff, while some only collect American pieces. I think the Victorian stuff is the best way to get a foot in the door if you’re a new collector or if you want to learn more about what the industry was like. It’s very accessible and still very reasonably priced. A good piece for a new collection isn’t necessarily the most beautiful or expensive. It doesn’t have to be encrusted with jewels. That’s a good thing.
If you put a piece in front of me that is loaded with diamonds but has no sentiment, and then another that is made out of hair, I’m going to go for the piece with the hair. That was someone’s life and love. That’s what it’s all about for me.
Miniature portraits are entirely different. As a collector, I face a lot of competition from other miniature portrait collectors. They’re very hungry for anything with a miniature portrait in it. Miniature portraiture covers everything—sentimental, memorial, and mourning. The late 18th-century stuff in particular is quite collectible and expensive. It was also well constructed.
Typically, miniature portraits were less expensive in the Victorian era. Salesmen would travel around with cases full of pre-painted miniatures, and they would tailor and tweak each portrait for the buyer. Sometimes the paintings were amateurish, but most of the time they were beautiful and lifelike. They’re pieces of art. They belong in museums.
Collectors Weekly: What are the different forms of mourning jewelry?
Peters: It was so broad—hatpins, cufflinks, watches, watch fobs, rings, necklaces, earrings. There were mourning warehouses in the 19th century that specialized in mourning paraphernalia. The Chase Mourning Warehouse was probably the most notable one. They had nearly everything. You could get a pin that was worn on an Albert chain with some sort of memorial motif on it. The list wasn’t endless, but it was quite extensive.
You can see some really unusual stuff. The watches were beautiful, but there aren’t many available. The handles of walking sticks were often tipped with a skull, which in some circles is still in fashion today. Today, it’s sometimes hard to discern which era a skull piece is from because there were so many semi-revival periods.
It’s more difficult to find pure mourning accessories for men because during the latter years, the armbands and rings made for men weren’t completely mandatory. Besides, the costume of the day was already black, or mostly black.
For women, there were mourning versions of everything—jewelry, of course, but also skirts and accessories, from gloves to ribbons to hats. It was such a fashion. As long as the item could be black, as long as it could be someway used for the regalia of mourning, it was available.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a bit more about the different metals used to make the jewelry?
Peters: Gold was the most common followed by high-nickel-content pinchbeck, and then things like raw gold. Brass was used, but the further down the scale you got from something that mimicked gold, the less ideal it became. Different metals were made for different social strata. Gold pieces are probably the most sought after. The higher the gold content, the better it is. Most Victorian pieces were 9 karat, I think.
They used silver to a much lesser degree. It’s much harder to find silver pieces. Victorian silver wasn’t really the most popular of metals until about 1880, and it had to develop. I collect Victorian silver. The pieces were a bit showier. They’re regal, beautiful, and bold. Lockets are common in silver, but the “in memory of” inscription in them is pretty rare. I haven’t seen many of them.
I’ve seen silver pieces with black enamel and pearls but without the common symbols of mourning, like the forget-me-nots. You’ve got to wonder whether it was created for the purpose of mourning or for sentimentality.
Collectors Weekly: Were gemstones also used?
Peters: Absolutely. They were the primary focus of sentimental pieces. The gems ran the spectrum from rubies to topaz. For mourning, crystal and diamonds were probably the most common gems. There was a lot of what they call Stuart Crystal from 1650 to 1750. Crystal was used a lot in that period. It was multifaceted, so it caught the light like a diamond.
Under the crystal, there was always hairwork or stretched material with a gold cipher of someone’s initials. There might be a little enamel motif such as the skull and crossbones, angels, or something like that. The same was true for ribbon slides, rings, and brooches. Ribbon slides were very common.
By the Georgian period, let’s say the late 18th century, the same sorts of materials were used. Most stones and gems were there for a reason. They all had meaning and symbolism. But as the early 19th century wore on, a lot of the stones were costume. The actual gem itself wasn’t used, but it gave the impression of the gem. That was quite common. Even costume “regard” and “dearest” rings were made. They were just as fashionable.
A lot of the time, the choice of gems was decided by trade agreements. For example, if an agreement was struck with a diamond mine, you’d see an increase in diamonds being used in jewelry. People often think that diamonds were the most common expensive gems but pearls were more prolific, especially during the early 19th century. As the neoclassical art started to disappear, the focus shifted to hair, which was often displayed inside a piece of glass and then surrounded by pearls.
The choice of gems had to do with the stages of mourning, which changed through the 18th and 19th centuries. In the first period people wore black, hairwork, and whatnot. In the second period, they could introduce a little bit of color like purple. That’s where amethysts came in.
Collectors Weekly: What about jet jewelry?
Peters: Jet was and is quite popular. It was most commonly mined in Whitby, England. The jet industry goes back to Roman times, I believe. It’s basically a kind of a coal. A lot of other materials were made to mimic jet, like gutta-percha. They’d cut it down and facet it to get a sparkle. Then it would be used in bracelets and necklaces. It was very popular in Victorian times, and not just for mourning. It was just a fashionable item.
There was also a glass version of jet, which was cheaper option for people. You see a lot of both in brooches and especially bracelets. Bracelets were worn prominently in mourning dress. A woman in first-stage mourning would be adorned in jet and wore a black bracelet over the top of some dresses. The jet industry still exists to some degree. But it really symbolized that grand Victorian focus on black as a main motif, especially during the mourning era in the second half of the 19th century.
You could also buy a piece of jet carved into a castle or other shapes as a sentimental token or a little memorial. These items were not made only for mourning, but you can find heavy mourning ones. You might find a beautiful jet cameo with a weeping woman carved on it, or a sentimental “faith, hope and charity” piece. The pointing hand is quite common in late Victorian stuff. It was such a huge industry that it nearly exhausted Whitby.
Collectors Weekly: Did symbolism play a major role in mourning and memorial jewelry?
Peters: Absolutely. The symbolism of mourning is probably the easiest to grasp. It’s blatant, with weeping willows and other obvious motifs. It becomes more difficult to decode the sentimentality of the neoclassical period. You might see a piece with two lovers next to a bird in an open cage. Does the cage symbolize death? Is the bird a child? Does it represent that a child is about to be born? Are the people actually two lovers?
A broken column means life cut short; an unbroken column means eternity, basically. The snake eating its own tail also means eternity, or eternal love to some degree. That was symbolism in that era.
In the Victorian period when a lot more gems were used, the symbolism is a little more blatant. The snake is quite common. Queen Victoria liked snake jewelry. You might see a black enameled snake on a piece or a forget-me-not.
They also appropriated the memento mori symbols: the skull and crossbones; Death holding a scythe, an hourglass, or both; angels with cherubs playing trumpets signaling the gates of heaven. Symbolism is probably the richest aspect of collecting memorial, sentimental, or mourning jewelry.
I find that most people project their modern symbolic values on a piece. They don’t consider its cultural and historical significance. That clouds the message and doesn’t really resonate with what the piece was meant to do.
A lot of it actually stems from mainstream art. If you start looking at jewelry, and then go to The National Gallery, you’ll see a lot of those symbols in many of the paintings. They’re all there. The mourning jewelers didn’t really bring anything new to the table. The symbols and motifs were part of the broader art movement, of what was popular at the time.
Collectors Weekly: Please tell us more about miniature portraiture.
Peters: Miniature portraiture tends to be more sentimental, obviously. Sometimes it was commissioned for a loved one. If you gave someone a portrait, maybe a young woman who was going away for a while, it might be regarded as a declaration of marriage. So there were rules about what the pieces meant, who could wear them, and when they should be worn. I mentioned the Charles I pieces and what they represented: That’s a case in which miniature portraiture was about death but it also related to the life of the man.
There were quite a few miniature portraits of Charles II, often in court. A lot of the pieces were anachronistic. Some were just design studies produced by art students—there was a lot of that going around. Silhouettes were also quite popular.
Miniature portraiture declined and almost disappeared as photography became more available. But photography expanded memorial jewelry, as lockets and things to hold photographs got a little bigger to accommodate the pictures. All of a sudden people could wear things with their loved one’s portrait. They didn’t have to sit down for several weeks to have it made and pay a premium to a respected artist. And as photography became less expensive, it gave people of limited means an affordable way of remembering their loved ones.
Collectors Weekly: Were specific jewelers known for making mourning and memorial jewelry?
Peters: Not really. Most jewelers handled it. The English pieces are hallmarked. Those are obviously the easiest to track down. The trend was so broad and culturally fashionable that it’s hard to pin down one maker as being the best.
The makers of the American stuff are harder to identify, but you can find the year for the Victorian material by looking at catalogs of the day. It’s pretty easy. They liked a certain style. I can use the documentation of the era to see if someone made a certain design, such as a Victorian buckle ring with hairwork on the inside. That was a very common piece. A lot of rings came out of Chester in the U.K. That’s where the industry was. They had the molds and so they could just pump it out.
Collectors Weekly: Are certain forms of mourning jewelry more difficult to collect than others?
Peters: The ones to be careful of are the degradable and precious pieces. Not just in jewelry, but anything. For example, there were mourning teddy bears and other things like that—things that rot and are a little more obscure. They need better care, and there aren’t many left. Similarly, a lot of the materials used for mourning wear, like crepe and silks, just don’t last.
Hair wreaths can also be problematic. I have quite a few. In fact, anything to do with hairwork that hasn’t been treated properly may degrade and start to lose its consistency. Wood things, like the folk art pieces and the samplers, are really at the mercy of the elements and just don’t age well. Hair is usually the first thing to go in the jewelry, but I’ve pulled pieces from a 400-year-old box that were in beautiful condition. It’s really a matter of how they’ve been stored.
Ivory is the other big one. I’ve had a lot of problems with it. Keeping it at a steady temperature and constant level of humidity is really important. It swells and cracks in the wrong climate. And once it’s cracked, it’s not coming back.
Humidity is something to watch out for in miniature portraits, too. At the times in my life when I haven’t been living in the right environment for these pieces, I won’t buy them. I’m their caretaker. Most of them are dedicated to other people. When I go, it all goes to a museum or somewhere, so I want them to last forever.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most common mourning jewelry inscriptions?
Peters: The most common is “in memory of,” and it’s also my favorite. It can be found in bands even before the development of the dictionary. “Not lost but gone before” is also quite popular.
Most of the time these pieces have a dedication to whoever died and the age they were when they died. It tells you when they died and maybe when they were born. It might also have the names of their children. Those sorts of things obviously make my job of researching each piece easier and more fun.
Other pieces, such as the ones with hairwork, bear no sentiment, no dedication, but they do have symbols. So you have to figure out what it means. What’s the color scheme? If it’s not black, white, or blue enamel, what does it mean? Blue enamel, for example, was used to express sentimental feelings, but blue was also used for royalty. White enamel was commonly used for the death of a child or an unmarried woman. Black obviously signified death.
I love it when a collection can remain together. A woman in London was selling her entire family’s collection of jewelry and other things dating back to about 1760. I made her an offer for the whole lot—her kids didn’t want it. I said, “I’ll take everything you’ve got. Just write down the provenance of each piece, who it was for, and what year you believe it was made in.” She wrote down her entire family history right then and there. It was brilliant because I had miniatures, compacts, rings, bracelets, and slides—all sorts of fabulous things.
Collectors Weekly: So, just to be clear, is mourning jewelry considered a type of funeralia?
Peters: Yes. Some pieces are obviously made with the funeral in mind. In the 16th century, it wasn’t unheard of to leave an allocation in your will for the construction of mourning jewelry to be given to the loved ones at the funeral. To me that’s funeralia. That’s an accessory of mourning and part of the pomp and showiness of the funeral itself.
There were other things, though, that may be considered mourning but not funeralia. For example, I don’t consider the neoclassical stuff to be real funeralia, but it all falls under that umbrella. Funeralia, itself, is another world. You have the actual cemetery, the burial, and God knows what. It has so many facets. I think the jewelry fits in there in some way.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a vibrant community of mourning and memorial jewelry collectors?
Peters: Yes. My website and my travels have brought together a lot of very knowledgeable collectors from around the world. And I thank them so much for all of their input into the website and into my studies of mourning, sentimental, and memorial jewelry.
We show each other different pieces. One of my goals is to catalog, teach, and talk about these pieces—to lessen the mystique and romanticism of mourning, memorial, and sentimental jewelry, which has led to negative connotations. There’s so much cultural and social history there. I don’t think the negative stuff is necessary.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any advice for an aspiring collector?
Peters: The first thing I’d say is to get experience. Physically get out there, touch the pieces. It’s also important to go to all the websites, from eBay to Ruby Lane. You don’t have to buy everything. In fact, that can lead to a lot of trouble because the collecting impulse can overcome the quest for knowledge, which should be the first goal.
Look at as many individual pieces as you can. Familiarize yourself with both the high and the low ends of the market. Read as much as you can. Touch, feel, and really get intimate with the pieces. Use your eyes and learn to identify what you are looking at. That will be your foundation as a collector. When I was quite young, I remember going to some of the best antiques jewelers in the country. They showed me everything, including all their most magnificent pieces. That was an education, and it didn’t cost me a thing.
(All images in this article courtesy Hayden Peters of www.artofmourning.com)