... ... Identifly: an informational blog on Jewelry Identification - Gem Set Love

The influence of an Era.

Wearing jewelry in remembrance of our beloved dead is a tradition that originated in the 16th century, but the fashion for mourning jewelry reached its height during the reign of Queen Victoria. Victorian mourning jewelry, particularly those pieces dating to the earlier part of this era, are of special interest to lovers of antique jewelry due to its uniquely personal nature; few other styles of jewelry allow such an intimate glimpse into the past. These pieces often share common motifs symbolizing grief and remembrance, but they may also feature loving personalized inscriptions and locks of the deceased’s hair, hand-worked and woven by the bereaved. It is idiosyncratic elements such as these that make Victorian mourning jewelry so rewarding to collect, study and enjoy.

Before the rise of our modern entertainment and fashion industries, fashion was dictated by the nobility and members of court. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of England in 1837 at the age of 18 she became last word on fashion. Victoria had been very gently raised by her over-protective mother and her resulting sentimentality and strict adherence to propriety colored not only the moral tone but the fashion trends of her reign. Young Queen Victoria was madly in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and in February of 1840 they celebrated a magnificent royal wedding. Early Victorian mourning jewelry reflects her romantic mood; it is extremely personal and sentimental. Mourning jewelry of this period is hand-made on a smaller scale, delicately detailed and hand engraved.

Queen Victoria demanded that the ladies of her court strictly uphold the rules of mourning, so it was necessary for anyone seeking social status to follow these rules to the letter. Mourning rituals were demanding. Wives were expected to wear exclusively black for a minimum of two years after the loss of a husband and many widows chose to remain in mourning for life. Members of court wore mourning not only at the death of their own family members, but also at the death of any member of the royal family. During this era of rampant disease and poor sanitation, many people wore mourning for most of their lives.

 In 1861 Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert died unexpectedly. Her grief was intense and enduring, and the early Victorian romanticism of death and mourning rituals evolved into the heavy reality of genuine loss. The queen went into deepest mourning, which she imposed upon her court and observed for the remainder of her life. While Victoria’s mourning was sincerely felt, for members of her court it became a tedious, mandatory fashion rather than a personal expression of grief. This, coupled with advances in industrialization, led to less personal, mass produced mourning jewelry. Jewelry construction was more likely to be machined rather than made by hand. Styles became bulkier and less romantic, and geometric shapes replaced the delicate, naturalistic designs popular earlier in the era.

In 1887 Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of her reign. Her subjects celebrated too because, after twenty-six gloomy years, the queen finally relaxed her rules of mourning. People were once again allowed to wear lighter colors and fabrics and they embraced this freedom wholeheartedly. Heavy black clothing became deeply unfashionable, and so did mourning jewelry; any apparel related to death and mourning was rejected by the young and fashionable. This marked the end of a tradition in jewelry that dates back to the Renaissance, and an end to the use of materials specific to mourning jewelry.

Clothing worn during mourning was black; ideally, the jewelry worn with mourning was too. This led to the use of dark-colored materials which are associated almost exclusively with this era. Victorian mourning jewelry utilized traditional materials such as gold, silver; diamonds and pearls were also used and were considered a representation of tears. The jewelry also employs materials that hold little intrinsic value but are rich in sentimentality and symbolism such as jet, horn, bog oak, onyx, enamel, and human hair, as well as man-made materials produced through industrialization like gutta-percha and vulcanite. The unusual materials specific to Victorian mourning jewelry help us to recognize and date these pieces. Our next posting will teach you how to use four of your senses (we won’t ask you to put anything in your mouth!) to identify these materials and, in turn, identify Victorian mourning jewelry.

An exploration of materials.

In this installment of Identifly, we will give you the information, clues, and tools to recognize some of the materials most commonly used in the Mourning Jewels of the 19th century. We will be including pictures for visual recognition as well as sharing techniques that we use in the field to quickly identify what we are considering purchasing. Whether you are at a Flea Market, Upscale Antique Show, or examining items up for bid at your local Auction House, these on the fly tests requiring minimal tools will give you a competitive edge. At the end of this installment Paula will share with you the tools she carries with her on her buying expeditions.

Victorian mourning jewelry is characterized by its use of somber, dark-colored materials, and jet may be the material most characteristic of this style of jewelry. Jet ornaments possess a melancholy beauty, a subtle glossy depth that is uniquely their own. The Victorian passion for jet was sparked in the early 1850’s when jet ornaments were displayed at the 1851 Grand Exposition, and the trend exploded when Queen Victoria wore jet to a banquet in mourning for the death of a cousin. Its natural black color made it ideal for mourning wear. Jet was hand-carved into beads, which were worn in long, layered strands. It could be polished into a satiny smoothness or cut into reflective facets. It was also carved into linked chains, earrings, and brooches, which bore popular motifs of the day such as cameos, floral bouquets, entwined branches, and love knots. The Jet brooch pictured below actually has the name of the lost loved one engraved upon the surface amid vines and branches, Miss Minnie Tuttle.

Jet is an organic substance, prehistoric driftwood that has fossilized over the course of 180 million years into lignite coal. It was mostly mined between 1840 and 1920 in the coastal town of Whitby, England. Whitby’s artisans hand-carved the jet, and never fashioned it by machine; therefore, jet ornaments possess well-defined edges, asymmetrical and irregular designs, and saw marks that may be visible under a loupe. Jet possesses a number of other identifying characteristics: it is surprisingly light in weight, and like most organic materials, has a neutral temperature to the touch. A faint wood grain pattern may be visible when it is examined with a loupe. It is also a good conductor and develops static electricity easily when rubbed against wool or silk. When the item is very gently rubbed on unglazed porcelain it will leave a brown streak (called a streak test, the color of the resulting streak provides a clue to identification). Age and wear present themselves in flea-bite chips (particularly around bead holes) and crazing (light surface cracks) may be caused by excessive dryness. Lockets carved from jet will be rough and unpolished on the inside, behind the glass. The links of jet chains were always carved and then sawn in half, doweled and glued back together, a process which results in a characteristic seam along the link’s entire length. The findings used in jet jewelry such as pins, hooks, fasteners, and clasps were usually made of base metal and often painted black.

Black onyx was another popular material for use in mourning jewelry. Onyx, a form of quartz, is a hard stone that naturally occurs in a variety of colors, including a deep, opaque black that was ideal for mourning wear. It was hand carved and polished into a variety of jewels: beads, earrings, and brooches and commonly set into rings. Onyx holds a high, mirror-like polish that differentiates it from the mellower glow of jet. It is also heavier than jet. As is true of all natural stone, onyx is cold to the touch but quickly absorbs body heat. Hold the piece to your cheek and notice how cold it is and how quickly it warms to the temperature of your skin. Wear presents itself in scratches and conchoidal or shell-shaped chips.

The enormous popularity of jet created a demand that the small, local industry of Whitby could not meet. And the cost of both hand worked Jet and Onyx could be prohibitive. Imitation was inspired in the form of black glass. Black glass jewelry was known as French jet, a misnomer: French jet is neither jet nor is it (necessarily) from France. Easy to produce, French jet provided an inexpensive alternative to true jet and onyx, making mourning jewelry fashions accessible to a wider variety of consumers. French jet jewelry resembles real jet in its forms and motifs, but it possesses a cold glitter that differs from the warm gloss of true jet. There are a number of ways a collector may identify French jet: glass is heavier than jet and cold to the touch. French jet, as it is glass, is always molded; a process which results in regular and repeated patterns, as well as visible seams and air-bubbles, which will not be present in hand-carved jet or onyx pieces. The edges of French jet (Black Glass) ornaments are also generally softer and less defined than we see in hand-carved materials.

Glass beads often have pronounced seams from the molds used to make them. Also use your loupe to look at the holes of beads when trying to identify the individual materials. You will see a soft curve at the hole with glass beads, while Jet will show pulls in the material and small chips from wear, and the holes in Onyx beads will be crisp and sharp and often capped in gold. ( see the above photos for details)

Tortoise shell’s dark, mottled colors made it an ideal material for use in Victorian mourning jewelry. It was most commonly molded into linked chains, bracelets, hair combs and earrings. The primary source of worked tortoise shell is the Hawksbill tortoise, an animal that was tragically hunted to near extinction: it was listed as an endangered species by 1973. By the 1860’s imitation tortoise shell became available in the form of celluloid; we will explore this and other man made materials further in our next installment. Although Tortoise was used even after the commercial introduction of Celluloid it became less common. Tortoise shell is a natural polymer that may be molded through the application of heat and pressure, or it may be carved. Genuine tortoise shell can be identified through the senses of sight, touch and smell. Under a loupe, true tortoise shell’s dark mottled patches are seen as clusters of tiny spots. Tortoise shell is, like all organic materials, neutral to the touch: room temperature and slow to absorb body heat. Apply gentle yet vigorous friction to tortoise shell, using the heel of your hand, and you will notice the subtle odor of burning hair. The links of tortoise shell chains are individually formed then split on one side and molded together using heat to shape the links into a chain; therefore, tortoise shell links will display a seam on one end only. Mice find tortoise shell to be irresistible, so be on the lookout for tiny mice nibbles as an indicator of authenticity. This photo shows the mottling in genuine Tortoise as well as the sentimentality of Victorian mourning jewels. This brooch is a baby angel or Cherub, holding an Urn, a common theme in mourning jewels.

Horn was used in a wide variety of mourning pieces, from very expensive ornaments decorated with gold to inexpensive baubles with base metal findings. The process for working horn was long, laborious and created a foul odor. It involved a series of water and oil baths, and pressings between blocks and iron plates. The horn was then shaped into hair combs, or ground up and molded into brooches, buttons, etc. The resulting ornaments are a glossy, opaque dark brown. These pieces often display the horn’s growth pattern, and delicate edges may appear slightly translucent. Like most organics, horn is lightweight and has a neutral temperature. When friction is applied, horn releases a subtle yet distinct wet-dog-like odor. Rub vigorously on the heel of your hand while bringing it up to your nose to identify the scent. The layers of the pressed horn will at times show some lifting, or separation, which is also helpful in identifying it. Both of the brooches shown below are horn which was heated and pressed into a mold, these could have been massed produced one after the other and therefore were inexpensive and available to the average working class woman.

Bog oak is another material characteristic of Victorian mourning jewelry. Bog oak was sourced from Ireland, and jewelry made from bog oak generally bore such Irish motifs as shamrocks, harps and Celtic knot work or lettering. Derived from wood in an early stage of fossilization, bog oak is Scot’s pine, oak or yew that has been preserved in a peat bog and stained very dark brown by the peat’s tannic acids. Once the wood is brought to the surface, contact with oxygen accelerates the petrifaction process. The wood was carved while wet before it dried to a deep ebony-color and a steely hardness; the carving of bog oak was usually less refined from that of higher quality jet. Bog oak may be differentiated from jet in the following ways: a very deep brown rather than black color, an inability to be polished to a high shine, and a defined wood-grain structure.

Interestingly, the sentiment and nostalgia inherent to Victorian mourning jewelry was juxtaposed with the scientific advancements and burgeoning industrialization of the day. In the next installment of this blog we will discuss the man-made materials and very early plastics that came to be used in this most romantic of fashions.

Paula’s Identifly very small tool kit:

  1. A Loupe, it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, a 10x magnification is good enough to see what you need to see.
  2. A small piece of silk, I use the corner of an old scarf, it doesn’t need to be more than a 1” square.
  3. A small piece of tile, you can go to a tile store and get a small tile or break a corner off of a larger piece. Again it doesn’t need to be larger than an 1”, you will use the unglazed back for the streak test mentioned in this installment and for things we will talk about in later installments.
  4. A small pen light to check the edges for translucence.
  5. Most important, all of your senses.

Smell. Rub the piece vigorously on the heel of your hand to create warmth that amplifies the smell of an item. Then raise the hand and item to your nose and smell it.

Touch. Bring the item to your cheek to test for temperature, run your fingers over pieces to feel for chips, cracks, and seams.

Sound. Tap pieces on glass gently and listen to the difference in the sound of glass, stone, plastic, and organics.


Queen Victoria’s reign saw a world transformed by industrial and scientific progress. Breakthrough inventions of such far-reaching impact as steam-powered transportation, long-distance communication and mechanical mass-production ushered in the modern age at a dizzying speed. It was during this era that early semi-synthetic plastics were first formulated. Plastics are now ubiquitous, infiltrating every aspect of our lives; but in the Victorian era their qualities were exciting and new.

A plastic is defined as a substance that is made malleable by heat and permanently hardens upon cooling. To shape plastic the material is heated, formed in a mold, and cooled to set. Once set, some plastics may also be carved with additional fine detail. Horn and tortoiseshell are natural plastics; the new Victorian semi-synthetic plastics were derived from natural substances impacted by chemical actions. They were quickly put to many purposes both household and industrial, not least of which was the creation of beautiful jewelry.

Gutta-percha was the first of these new, semi-synthetic plastics. Gutta-percha is made from latex derived from the sap of the Palaquium, Isonandra and Dichopsis gutta trees found in the Malaysian archipelago, one of the many outposts of the far-reaching British Empire. Gutta-percha’s earliest appearance occurred in 1822, and by the 1840’s it was being used for everything from dental appliances to whole pieces of furniture. In fact, the demand for gutta-percha was too high to be sustainable and by the end of the Victorian era the trees were harvested nearly to extinction. This detail is useful for dating and identification: if an ornament is made of gutta-percha it will date from this period. Its naturally occurring dark color made it an obvious choice for use in Victorian mourning jewelry as another, less-expensive alternative to jet. Gutta-percha was most commonly molded, but sometimes carved. Stronger than rubber, it holds finer, sharper detail than other plastics of the era. Like jet, it is light-weight and room temperature to the touch. In contrast to jet, it appears to be dull and oily. Gutta-percha releases an odor of burning rubber when immersed in warm water or subjected to gentle friction.

This example of Gutta-Percha shows a Cross in the form of tied sheaves of wheat. The wheat represents a long life, productive and abundant. And was a common symbol in the sentimental Victorian Era.

The picture below shows the up close details of the Gutta-Percha cross in the photo above, showing you what to expect when you examine a piece with your loupe.


The introduction of Vulcanite, also known as Ebonite or hard rubber, was the next phase in the evolution of plastics. Vulcanite is derived from natural rubber which is hardened through the addition of sulphur. Vulcanized rubber was patented in the mid 1840’s: in Britain by Thomas Hancock and in the U.S. by Charles Goodyear. During the Victorian period Vulcanite was used in a wide variety of household products such as fountain pens, candlesticks and telephones; it is still being used today for a variety of industrial and household purposes. Vulcanite, like gutta-percha, is naturally dark in color making it an ideal choice for use in mourning jewelry. Vulcanite is always molded; therefore, a Vulcanite locket will always display a clean interior design. The links of a Vulcanite chain were also molded, sliced open on one end, and then shaped around the next link through the application of heat. Vulcanite’s sulphur content provides additional clues to its identification. Over time, and if exposed to heat and light, Vulcanite may be identified by a sulphurous bloom that gives the piece a dusty, khaki color. The application of friction will produce the faint odor of sulphur. A Vulcanite streak test results in a light brown streak on unglazed porcelain.

The picture below shows an example of a Vulcanite brooch. Notice how the parts are extruded, and in the case of the circular pieces heated into the shape. The pieces are then held together using small brass screws. Vulcanite was a more affordable material marketed to the lower classes of Victorian Society, so the findings will be in less expensive base metals and black glass was often used for details. The contrast between the black glass rounds and the body of the brooch really show how the Vulcanite attains a Khaki color over the years.


Celluloid, patented in 1869, was modern plastic’s next stage. Celluloid is created when cellulose (organic material such as cotton fiber or wood flour) is dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids and camphor, and the resulting mixture is combined with oil. There are many different formulas used to create Celluloid, resulting in a wide variety of subtle colors and effects. Celluloid was used in all kinds of jewelry, but its ability to emulate the delicately mottled patterns found in natural tortoiseshell made it a fine material for use in mourning jewelry. It’s beauty and versatility caused Celluloid’s popularity to survive well into the 20th century. Celluloid is more affordable than tortoiseshell and horn, but ornaments made of this material utilize the same level of craftsmanship as its more expensive counterparts. Celluloid is cut or hot-pressed from blocks which are formed from laminated sheets; therefore, faint stripes may be visible in Celluloid forms. Celluloid can yellow with age. It is highly flammable and with the application of gentle friction it releases a subtle yet distinct odor of mothballs.

This photo shows a common use of Celluloid in the late Victorian era. These large hair combs were very fashionable, and an acceptable item to wear in the later stages of mourning. But until the invention and commercial use of celluloid they were crafted of the more expensive Tortoise Shell and therefore financially out of reach for the majority of Victorian ladies.

The photo below is a close up of the celluloid hair comb. This is what you should expect to see when you examine Celluloid with your loupe, molded details with softened edges. Hand carved Tortoise Shell will have crisper lines and more irregular mottling.

Mourning jewelry utilized the most modern of its era’s materials, yet perhaps the material most characteristic of mourning jewelry is the most ancient: human hair. Our next blog entry will discuss the art of Victorian hair work.