Materials in Mourning Jewelry: Installment 2 of the Identifly Series

Materials in Mourning Jewelry: Installment 2 of the Identifly Series

It's Not Always Jet.

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, dowelled 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 knotwork 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 a 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.



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