by Susan and Jim Harran
for AntiqueWeek
Dec 1997

Mourning jewelry mirrored the lives and times of the people who wore it. It
was a souvenir to remember a loved one, a reminder to the living of the
inevitability of death, and a status symbol, especially during the Victorian

The earliest examples of mourning jewelry were found in Europe in the 15th
and 16th centuries. Black and white enameled heads or skulls were often set
into rings and brooches. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was a status
symbol to present mourning rings to friends and families of the bereaved.

Mourning jewelry reached its height of popularity in England after the death
of Prince Albert in December 1861. Queen Victoria went into deep mourning,
which was imitated by her subjects when faced with their own bereavements.

Following Albert's premature death, Queen Victoria ordered that his dressing
room at Windsor Castle remain exactly as he left it. His clothes were laid
out every night, and hot water prepared for nightly ablutions. The queen
slept with a photo of the head and shoulders of Albert taken as he lay dead.
All family photos included a life size marble bust of Albert in the center of
the group. Victoria required everyone at court to wear mourning attire on
social occasions for three years. She remained a semi-recluse and wore black
for the rest of her life.

In the United States the use of mourning jewelry increased with the outbreak
of the Civil War. This coincided with the black jewelry used in England in
sympathy with Queen Victoria's widowhood.

Mourning rings were presented by the bereaved family to friends and family
members as a memorial to the deceased. The earliest known example is a 15th
century English ring, decorated with a skull, a worm and the name "Iohes Godefray."

The Death's Head motif (skull) was still much used on mourning rings in the
17th century. A ring presented after the execution of Charles I in 1649 shows
an intaglio portrait of Charles I on one side and a skull and a crown on the
other. Inside the inscription reads, "The glory of England has departed."

The presentation of mourning rings was a status symbol in the 17th and 18th
centuries. Many wealthy people included in their wills instructions on how
the rings would be designed, and how many should be made. Samuel Pepys,
English diarist and naval official (1633-1703) willed that 129 mourning rings
be given away at his funeral.

In the 18th century finely scrolled mourning rings were made with white
enamel used for the death of a single person and black enamel for a married
person. The name, age, dates of birth and death of the deceased were
inscribed around the shank of the ring. Funeral urns, coffins, serpents or
miniatures of those mourned were set in the ring surrounded by small seed pearls.

In the 19th century mourning rings given out to family and friends were often
made from plaited hair of the loved one. The rings were gold with a ringlet
of hair enclosed in a locket-type setting.

Jet has been used for mourning for thousands of years. Highly suitable for
carving, examples have been found in prehistoric caves. The use of jet was
known to the Greeks as far back as 200 B. C. The Venerable Bede (673-735 A.
D.) wrote of jet, "Britain has much excellent jet which is black and
sparkling, glittering at the fire and when heated drives away serpents". An
early superstition was that its shiny surface was brilliant enough to deflect
the evil eye away from the person wearing it.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, jet took a Christian significance. From
the 14th-20th centuries, jet carvings were sold to pilgrims at holy sites in
Spain. It is not surprising that it became one of the most common substances
used in mourning jewelry.

Jet is a hard coal-like material which is formed when waterlogged driftwood
sinks to the ocean floors and becomes embedded in the mud. Through heat,
pressure and chemical action, the wood is transformed into a compact black
substance that is quite fragile. It is found throughout the world in Spain,
Germany, Canada, Nova Scotia, France and the United States.

The finest jet, however, was mined in Whitby, Yorkshire, England. Mining
started in the early 19th century, and by 1850 there were fifty jet workshops
in Whitby. Jewelers found jet to be lightweight and well suited to carving.
It was the perfect material for making large lockets, brooches, bracelets and
necklaces. After Albert's death, Queen Victoria decreed that only jet jewelry
was to be worn at court for the first year of mourning. By 1873 two hundred
jet shops sprung up in Whitby.

Today it is illegal to mine jet in Whitby because the only jet left is in
seams in the walls of the cliffs over the town. To remove it from the cliffs
would cause them to tumble down and destroy the town. The two remaining jet
cutters today have to rely on pieces that wash up on the beaches of this
seacoast town. Because of its scarcity, jet jewelry is very precious, and
early examples are avidly collected. To test for jet, Jeanenne Bell in

Answers and Questions About Old Jewelry suggests you carefully rub the piece
across some concrete such as a sidewalk. If it leaves a brownish, black mark,
the piece is jet.

Due to the shortage of jet, many imitations began to appear. One of these,
French jet, is a black glass produced in the United States from 1893 by the
Libbey Glass Company in Ohio. It is heavier than jet and was used mainly for
beads and small items. The United States also manufactured 'English Crape
Stone' which is a material made from onyx, then abraded with acids and colored
to produce a dull, black finish. Mourning jewelry in this finish was exported
to England, France, Belgium and Austria.

Other imitations such as dyed horn and early plastics appeared. Vulcanite
was an American invention made from sulpherized rubber. It can be
distinguished from jet by exposing it to light. Vulcanite turns from black to

Another substance similar to jet is gutta percha, a natural material for
mourning jewelry. Gutta percha is a black or brownish hard rubber material
made from the sap of a Malayan tree. It was introduced to Paris in 1842.
Durable and highly impressionable, it lent itself well to the Victorian taste
for embellishment, and many lockets, brooches, bracelets and walking cane
heads were made from it. Many pieces are still available to collectors at
reasonable prices.

Hair, a symbol of life, has been associated with death and funerals in many
cultures. Egyptian tomb paintings portray scenes showing pharaohs and queens
exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love. In Mexico, Indian women
kept hair combings in a special jar which was buried with their bodies so that
the soul would not become tired looking for missing parts, and delay its
passage to the other world.

Hairwork has early commercial roots in Scandinavian countries, where some is
still actively being done. In Sweden because of the population boom in the
early 1800's, scarcity of farm land, and many cold summers; life was difficult
for small farmers in rural areas. In order to survive and keep their farms,
they turned to crafts on a part-time basis. Each village developed its own
special trade.

In the small village of Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden hair plaiting became a
necessity for the town's survival. A village woman who was skilled at hair
plaiting taught the craft to friends and relatives. Soon this small town of
1800 had as many as 300 hair workers. Because there was no market for hair
jewelry in the impoverished village, it was necessary for the hair workers to
take long journeys to sell their wares. Young girls would divide up into
teams of three or four and travel to a country in Europe, learn the language
and take their art with them.

The craft of hairwork spread throughout Europe. Beautifully detailed
landscapes and floral designs were made by jewelers using human hair. In
England in the late 18th century early neo-classical style pieces were
bordered with seed pearls surrounding the words "In Memorium" and a panel of
simple, twisted hair. During the 19th century Queen Victoria presented
Empress Eugene with a bracelet of her own hair, and the Queen recorded in her
diary that the Empress was "touched to tears."

In the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition, a full line of hair jewelry was
displayed, as well as a full tea set made entirely of hair. By the 1850's
hair was an expensive commodity with a variety of commercial uses. Every
Spring hair merchants visited fairs and markets throughout Europe. They
offered young girls ribbons, combs and trinkets in exchange for their hair.

Hair jewelry caught on in the United States as well. During the Civil War as
the soldiers left home to join the fight, they would leave a lock of hair with
their families. Upon the soldier's death, the hair was often made into a
piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket. These were gold or black,
and were sometimes engraved with "In Memory Of" and the initials or names of
the deceased.

Godey's Lady's Book endorsed the fashion of hair jewelry and made it easy to
acquire. The following excerpt extolling the virtues of hairwork is from c. 1850:

"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like
love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a
lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven
and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee
here, not unworthy of thy being now."

In 1855, the magazine offered to accommodate any lady wishing hair made up
into jewelry, upon receipt of the hair and the price for making it. The
hairwork jewelry sold through Godey's was described as a superior product,
graceful in design and durable in quality. The gold in the finely chaised
mountings was of a warm reddish tone which contrasted beautifully with
intricate plaits of the hair.

Beginning in the 1850's through the 1900's, hairwork became a drawing room
pastime. Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine gave instructions and
patterns for making brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home. To further
the craze for the homecraft, Godey's reminded readers that while mourning
etiquette decreed that only jet jewelry was allowed for first mourning, for
the second mourning, one could wear a brooch and bracelet made of hair with a
gold and black enamel clasp. Even a watch chain or plain gold belt buckle was
permissible for widowers to wear if made of hair or if it enclosed hair.

The work was done on a round table. Depending on the height of the table, it
could be done sitting or standing. Women's work tables were usually 32 or 33"
high, and men's tables stood four feet. Preparation was important. The hair
must be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes. It was then sorted into lengths
and divided into strands of 20-30 hairs. Most pieces of jewelry required long
hair. For example, a full size bracelet called for hair 20 to 24" long.
Sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and thus
easier for a beginner.

Almost all hairwork was made around a mold or firm material. Snake bracelets
and brooches, spiral earrings and other fancy hair forms required special
molds which were made by local wood turners. The mold was attached to the
center hole in the work table. The hair was wound on a series of bobbins, and
weights were attached to the braid work to maintain the correct level and to
keep the hair straight. When the work was finished and while still around the
mold, it was taken off, boiled for 15 minutes, dried and removed from the
mold. It was then ready to go to a jewelers for mounting.

Victorian hair jewelry is available to collectors in a variety of forms, and
prices are still quite reasonable. A few museums where hairwork is displayed
are the Dearborn Historical Society and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn,
Michigan and the Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sandy Freel, a
museum volunteer, demonstrates hairwork at Living History Farms in Urbandale,
Iowa. Call (515) 278-5286 for information.

Ruth Gordon publishes the H. A. I. R. Line newsletter for those interested
in the craft and history of hairwork. Send SASE for more information to:
Ruth Gordon, 24629 Cherry Street, Dearborn, MI 48124. A new hairwork web site
on the Internet by Marlys Fladeland will feature articles, instructions, and
antique piece to order.

The fashion for all mourning jewelry came to an end at the turn of the 20th
century with the death of Queen Victoria, the onset of World War I and the
increased freedom for women.

Joseph Topping, owner of Morning Glory Antiques and Collectibles of New York
City, started selling miniatures and silhouettes in 1980. After doing
business as usual, a significant event took place in Topping's career in 1983.
"I bought a complete collection of mourning jewelry," Topping tells us.

This resulted in Topping becoming one of a very few dealers specializing in
mourning jewelry. Topping deals in all varieties of mourning jewelry, such as
rings, bracelets, stickpins, watch fobs and bracelets. "I was especially
pleased to get six pieces of 18th century hair jewelry from the same family
all in the same box. It's a rare find indeed! I bought it at an auction in
London," tells Topping.

"I make quite a few trips every year to England for my purchase of mourning
jewelry," says Topping. He explains that it's difficult to find mourning
jewelry in the United States. He tells us there is only a small group of
mourning jewelry collectors in the United States because some people find it
somewhat morbid. Topping tells us it was just the opposite. It brought joy
and comfort of the bereaved.


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Last revised: October 04, 2011