Although cremation jewelry as we know it today wasn’t introduced until the 1990s, its predecessor, mourning jewelry, has been around in one form or another for nearly 2,000 years. In 16th and 17th-century Europe, for example, rings and brooches set with black and white enameled heads or skulls represented a style of jewelry known as memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “be mindful of death” . a reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
Among the wealthy class of the 17th and 18th centuries, mourning rings were presented to friends and families of the deceased as a sign of social status. (Explicit instructions regarding the design and the number of rings to be presented were typically written into one’s will.) White enamel was used for the death of a single person and black enamel for a married person. Like many types of cremation jewelry, mourning rings were often inscribed with the name, age, birth and death dates of the deceased. Some rings featured cremation urns, coffins, serpents or an image of the deceased surrounded by small seed pearls.
Memorial Jewelry in Victorian England
When Prince Albert of England died of typhoid in 1861, his widow, Queen Victoria, went into mourning for the rest of her life, a period of 40 years. The Queen and her court dressed in elaborate mourning clothes and followed a strict code of conduct, and her loyal subjects mirrored this behavior when their own loved ones died.
The first stage of mourning, known as deep mourning, lasted three years. During this stage, Victorian Era widows left home only to attend church services, and when they did venture out, they dressed in full black mourning attire, including a veil. (Bereaved widowers, parents and children also observed public mourning during the Victorian Era, with different rules governing each group.)
Unlike most cremation jewelry which is made from metals such as sterling silver, the only jewelry worn during the deep mourning period was made of dark, somber-looking materials such as the following:
Often compared to coal, jet is a lightweight, fragile, fossilized black wood that’s ideal for carving. Jet has been in use for thousands of years and an early superstition held that it was shiny enough to deflect the evil eye away from the person wearing the jet. Today jet is very scarce (and therefore very precious), and antique jet memorial jewelry is a favorite among collectors.
The shortage of jet led to the creation of a number of imitations, including French jet, a black glass that’s heavier than jet and was used to make beads and other small items.
A hardened natural latex extracted from the sap of tropical trees of the same name. Gutta percha is durable, highly impressionable and ideal for molding into “stones.”
This semi-precious black stone was commonly used in memorial jewelry. In the U.S. onyx was abraded with acids to produce a dull, black finish, yielding a material known as English crape stone. Onyx is also a popular material used in modern cremation jewelry today.
Hair Memorial Jewelry in Civil War America
Meanwhile, in 1860s America, death seemed to be everywhere. The Civil War was raging, and as war deaths mounted, more families than not suffered devastating losses. At the same time, child death was also a common tragedy; according to historians, the child mortality rate was 20 to 30 percent, and parents were advised not to become “too attached” to infants.
Mourning jewelry made from hair was symbolic of this period. Like modern-day cremation jewelry, mourning jewelry made from a child’s hair or bearing a photograph of the child’s dead body brought comfort to bereaved parents and helped to keep the child’s memory alive. Likewise, before marching off to war, a soldier would snip a lock of his hair and leave it with loved ones, who would use it to create memorial jewelry should the soldier die in battle. The art of creating hair jewelry was taught to young girls in school, and plaiting hair for jewelry was a popular pastime for women.
Several methods were used to work hair into memorial jewelry. Locks of hair were braided and woven into necklaces, bracelets or watch fobs, for example. In other designs, the hair was mixed with an adhesive and used as a medium to create detailed mourning scenes or flower designs on brooches. Sometimes the hair was simply placed under glass in a brooch, creating a keepsake that was closest in design to the cremation jewelry of today.