The way we mourn is often a reflection of the time we live in.
Today, digital memorials and Tribute Videos are prevalent ways to help us cope with loss. But before the luxury of modern technology — photography included — jewelry was used to mourn. It was a simple daily reminder of a loved one lost.
Mourning jewelry dates as far back as the 1600s, but it reached its peak in the 18th and 19th century, particularly in Victorian England. It was Queen Victoria herself who helped make mourning “fashion” popular. When her husband died, Queen Victoria secluded herself, wearing only black mourning clothes and her husband’s ring for the rest of her life.
Rings were the most popular form of jewelry when it came to mourning, and they came in a variety of styles. They commonly bore inscriptions of the dead, with information like their name, date of death, date of birth, and their age. They also could have inscriptions of a motto or piece of poetry.
Mourning rings also came in different colors. Black was used for someone who was married, and white rings meant the deceased was unmarried or a child. Other colors were used to reflect the different stages of mourning, with mourning periods lasting up to a year.
It was common for memorial rings to be part of one’s will, too. George Washington’s last will and testament said:
“To my Sisters in Law Hannah Washington & Mildred Washington, to my friends Eleanor Stuart, Hanna Washington of Fairfield and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, I give each a Mourning Ring of the value of One Hundred Dollars. These bequests are not made for their intrinsic value of them, but as mementos of my esteem and regard.”
Lockets, Necklaces, and Bracelets
Lockets today bring to mind ideas of love, but they were originally used as a reminder of the dead. A locket in the Victorian Era was handed out at funerals. They could have engravings or portraits of the dead, but most contained strands of hair from the deceased. While it sounds weird, hair was commonly used to make other jewelry such as bracelets and necklaces.
Jewelry wasn’t just to remind you of the dead, it also was used to remind you that you were going to die. Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember that you have to die.” It was popular during the Victorian Era to keep a memento mori ring as a reminder of mortality.
If the idea itself sounds pretty morbid, the imagery and phrases inscribed took it a step further. The rings would have images of skulls, skeletons, coffins, and the grim reaper.
Modern Mourning Jewelry
What’s old is becoming new. Today, families are looking for increasingly personal ways to remember their loved ones and they are turning to jewelry. Memorial jewelry is making a comeback as some families opt to turn cremated remains into personalized jewelry products.