Queen Victoria could be considered the social media icon of the 19th Century. Early women’s fashion magazines across Europe and North America all took their fashion cues from QV, and fashionable women couldn’t wait to see what she was wearing - particularly her jewellery.
Mourning jewellery was very popular during Georgian and Victorian times, but it dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when motifs such as skulls and crossbows, and even gravediggers, served as an important reminder of death. Memento Mori - translating as “remember you must die” - jewellery encouraged the wearer to live well and have strong morals.
Unlike today, our ancestors didn’t fear death, but it was always on their minds. With unending war, sickness and plagues it was impossible to escape, so the threat of impending death motivated people to make the most of their time on earth. Mourning jewellery shouldn’t be seen as depressing - instead, its purpose is to encourage us to pay attention to the living and enjoy being alive.
Interest in Mourning Jewellery peaked after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died suddenly of typhoid at the age of 42. As a celebrity of her time, Victoria had a strong influence on how grieving women dressed and behaved, so when she adopted her black clothing and mourning jewellery, the world followed suit.
In continuation of the romantic symbols of Victoria’s earlier life, memorial jewellery celebrated the love she had for Albert. Widows copied her style with sentimental jewellery that honoured the memories of their own lost loved ones, often with inscriptions such as “gone but not forgotten”. Symbols such as clouds and angels, or forget me not flowers were very popular as Victoria made mourning fashionable.
The mass production that was brought about by the Industrial Revolution made mourning jewellery more affordable too. The best pieces were crafted from Whitby jet; an entire industry for jet jewellery was built in this little seaside town in Northern England, which was also the setting for Dracula. Other popular materials of the time included onyx, gutta and perch, while less-expensive alternatives included black glass, black enamel, red garnets, bog oak and vulcanite (a hardened rubber).
One of the more interesting types of mourning jewellery were pieces made from woven hair, literally enabling the wearer to keep their lost love with them at all times. Hair jewellery became incredibly intricate, and some pieces were made with strands from various family members woven into complex floral patterns. Lockets were hugely popular, often containing a lock of the deceased’s hair or photographs of the departed.
There’s a great deal of symbolism in mourning jewellery too. White enamel means the deceased was a young, unmarried woman; pearls represented the tears of those left behind, and doves symbolised the holy spirit. Swallows were used as a symbol of flying home, while laurel leaves stood for peace. No skulls and crossbows here, just beautiful symbols of peace and love.
So, instead of being fearful of mourning jewellery and what it stands for, we say celebrate it. As well as having just enough mystery and gothic charm to appeal to lovers of the macabre, it’s also rich with love and poetry that’s perfect for all the romantics out there.
Mourning jewellery serves as a reminder that we are all here for just a short period of time, so it’s up to us to grab hold of life and make sure it’s worth living.
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