Collectible Antique Mourning Jewelry: Victorian Memento Mori

19th century mourning jewelry, while not invented by the Victorians, is most often considered a Victorian collectible – fine pieces, a collector’s delight.

The production of mourning jewelry became a lucrative business in the 19th century. The Victorians were especially sentimental and keeping and wearing items that symbolized memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “reminder of death”, was a way of showing one’s grief after the death of a loved one. Mourning jewelry became part of the fashion of the day and designers took full advantage of the trend, creating memento mori to reach a mass market.

Early days

The earliest mourning jewelry pieces from the 16th and 17th century had a macabre theme, which included pendents with coffin shapes and Death Head rings. Most pieces were created in gold or enameled gold with enameled jewels.

After Charles 1 was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, royalists, those loyal to the British Monarchy, began wearing jeweled portrait pendants and brooches of the dead king looking upward to heaven.

19th Century Mourning Jewelry

In the 19th century, especially after 1861, the year England’s Prince Albert died, all types of mourning jewelry was produced for both men and women. These included watch fobs, necklaces, brooches, rings, earrings, watches, pendents and more. Black was a predominant color in most mourning jewelry. The pieces were made of jet, or black glass. And there were black cameos with gold or silver settings.

Symbolism in Victorian Mourning Jewelry

Some of the most popular symbols used in Victorian mourning jewelry were coffins and skulls, but there were also interpretations of weeping women, willow trees, and pieces made in tear drop shapes. Sometimes a piece may have several symbols of death within. And they may have been inscribed with “In memory of …” or other sentimental phrases.

Hairwork in Mourning Jewelry

The custom of using hair in a craft known as hairwork, is traditionally associated with 19th century mourning or it had some sentimental relevance to the maker. Hairwork has its roots in Scandinavia and by the 19th century Victorian women in England were plaiting human hair and turning it into fine wreaths or detailed scenes to be displayed in glassed shadow boxes.

Hair symbolized life and keeping a lock of the deceased’s hair kept part of that persons life in the present. Mourning jewelry crafted with human hair could include a necklace like the one shown below. A simple lock of the deceased’s hair was traditionally added to a mourning locket.

Where to Find Mourning Jewelry

Online auctions and antique shops have the best variety of antique mourning jewelry all in one place. As they are small items, shipping won’t affect the collector’s purchasing budget. Antique shops that specialize in antique or estate jewelry are likely to have a good selection also. Collectors should forage antique malls, markets, thrift shops and even yard sales for good pieces. Often, what the collector is looking for shows up in the unlikeliest of places.

Price Guide for Antique Mourning Jewelry

The most intricate and fine pieces easily fetch over $300, but it is possible to find a simple Victorian black mourning brooch for under $50. A collector of vintage or antique costume jewelry could easily specialize in Victorian mourning jewelry to make the collection more interesting, but collecting antique mourning jewelry can be an expensive endeavor. Well-chosen pieces with fine detail make an important collection and a good investment as a result.