Jul 31, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
For centuries people have been expressing status through jewelry. Bold and shimmering pieces declare power. Golden bands represent a romantic commitment. Pearls symbolize purity. For the Victorian man or woman, black jewelry conveyed loss. While mourning jewelry’s origin story has deep roots, by the 1800s it experienced a renaissance of sorts. That revival is thanks to the cultural landscape. Folks during this era led incredibly structured lives and, as a result, embarking on relationships wasn’t the lighthearted undertaking it is today. Support networks were special and highly valued. When a community experienced loss, it was devastating. Coupled with the reality that most folks didn’t live past 40, the sanctity of life was universally acknowledged.
The Victorian invention of hair art captured that age-old desire for tangible connections to loved ones who had passed away. We see this theme of intimacy continued in lover’s eye jewelry, which might assault our modern sensibilities (much like mourning jewelry), if we assess it out of context. As we’ve mentioned, Victorian society was dripping with rules – rules that were taken very seriously. For example, if a woman didn’t live up to the standards applicable to her social class she would be shunned without exception. (The joyful hope found when someone talks about “starting over” these days would have no place in Victorian culture.) These standards were particularly strict around matters of love and loss. Given the quantity of restrictions it’s no wonder people craved connection. As a result, locks of hair or a portrait of someone’s eye took on added significance in the absence of touch. So what role did mourning jewelry play during this time?
White mourning pieces were created and they signified the death of innocence – a child or unmarried woman
Mourning jewelry was a link to the past and also a public display of grief. Fashioned out of black material, they were accompanied by a memento. That may be a lock of hair or a miniature portrait or likeness. Symbolism was very important so often pieces displayed weeping willows, urns – skeletons even! Key dates, names, or thoughts were often inscribed to further commemorate a life well-lived. The materials varied, but black enamel, fossilized coal (known as jet), and black glass were the most common. One important thing to remember is whatever the canvas, the expression was always deeply personal. Mourning jewelry was made for just one person (or family) as a physical expression of a treasured relationship.
These ornaments weren’t limited just to the womenfolk. Men would don mourning cuff-links or pocket watches in addition to their black arm bands. For women, the spectrum expanded: brooches, lockets, rings, hair pins, cameos, or necklaces. These somber pieces were the only accessories a woman could wear for two or three years following a death of a close loved one. Queen Victoria, ever the trendsetter, wore her mourning ring for the rest of her life. Traditionally, this jewelry was bestowed upon the mourner at the funeral itself. Thinking back to my own moments of grief, how would I have felt if someone had given me personalized jewelry at that time? Honestly, I would have been touched. In our modern times we are so quick to “say it with jewelry,” but focus on talking about the joyous occasions exclusively. As we all discover sooner or later, sorrow is just as much a part of the human experience as happiness. As Longfellow encourages, “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall.”
These days it would probably be more appropriate to relabel mourning jewelry as “sentimental.” To feel a connection with a loved one, we may wear something that’s been passed down to us. This practice is fairly common, but markedly private in contrast to its Victorian predecessor. Much like today’s fashion rules, where black isn’t worn for extended periods of time, grief seems hidden these days. Perhaps this evolution is a positive thing, allowing people to heal without an audience. But I can’t help but wonder, as loneliness becomes an epidemic in our country, if some of that communal mourning would be a welcome addition… let me know your thoughts in the comments!