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 the 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.