History of Memorial Jewelry

Mourning ring from 1778

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.

Vintage mourning ring with the band personalized with the deceased date of birth and age.

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

Queen Victoria went into mourning for 40 years after her husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid

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:

Jet

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.

French jet

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.

Gutta percha

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.”

Onyx

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

Vintage mourning locket shown with intricately woven hair

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.

Mourning locket made from jet shows unique features with hair displayed and engraving

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.

3 Comments

  1. debbie potter
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    My husband inherited from his grandmother a tiny round sterling silver keepsake of some kind.I suspect it contains a small amount of cremations or sacred soil. The orb is shaped like a round bottle with a tiny silver bottle neck and rounded silver cork. the cork does not come out. It has two engravings of asian women,I believe. This tiny bottle is about 3/4 inch in diameter and hangs from an attached chain.This 21/2 inch chain is permanently attached to both sides of the bottle.It reminds me off a watch bob.I can tell it contains something like sand because you can here it when you shake it, close to your ear. What do you think it is and how old might it be. I would very much like your opinion. Thanks, Debbie

  2. Kelly Gifford
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I would like to find a memorial brooch or locket for my mother. Last week she lost her 22 y/o mare, Destiny. I saved some hair from her tail and mane to make into jewelry. Most of what I have found is bracelets and necklaces made from the braided hair. I would like to find something like a hair ring or brooch.

  3. Posted November 25, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    This kind of information is very litmied on internet. Nice to find the post related to my searching criteria. Your updated and informative post will be appreciated by blog loving people.

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