Queen Victoria ruled for almost 64 years, the longest in British history. The last 40 of them were spent in mourning for her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861. And when she declared that mourning nationally should be for “the longest term in modern times”, it became not just a ritual but a fashion. Ironically, dressmakers and jewellers had a field day (as, no doubt, did undertakers).
So, while it may be a bid morbid, this week’s missive is all about collecting memoriam or mourning jewellery. Time was when such pieces commemorating the death of a loved one were treasured and passed down through the generations, but after the carnage of two world wars, relatives were often only too relieved to rid themselves of anything relating to death. The secondhand market became flooded with the stuff and only now is it being appreciated by a new generation of collectors.
It was the upper classes who made the most of mourning, a widow naturally bearing the burden more than most, although her children suffered too. Special bonnets, heavy “weeping veils” of black crepe, and gowns – her “widow’s weeds” – covered her almost entirely, which the rules demanded should be worn for at least a year and an a day and sometimes as long as four years after a loved one’s death. The universal colour was, of course, black.
A period of “half-mourning” followed, during which time colour could be slowly reintroduced, with the widow gradually returning to some sort of social life. Too soon and she was open to criticism, particularly if she gave any hint that she was open to courtship and a second marriage. Even her servants were expected to wear black, dressed appropriately at her sometimes crippling expense.
The practice of wearing mourning jewellery is thousands of years old, but Queen Victoria’s obsession sparked a fashion which became craze. She chose Whitby Jet, also known as sea coal and “black amber”, as a symbol of her grief.
Jet is a carboniferous mineral – a form of fossilised wood – mostly associated with the town of Whitby that was once collected from the North East shoreline to be used as fuel. Then, in 1800, John Carter and Robert Jefferson discovered it could be carved and polished. It was subsequently mined extensively along the Yorkshire coast, supporting a workforce of 1,400 men by the middle of the 19th century.
The dull black gloss of the mineral suited the heavy, sombre dresses that widows favoured. Equally heavy brooches, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and even skilfully carved, massive link chains gave an added sombreness.
In fact, so popular was Whitby jet that entrepreneurial Paris glassmakers copied the designs and faked them with deceptively similar so-called French jet It looks and feels like true jet but you can tell the difference by rubbing it against your teeth. If it’s real jet, it’s smooth, while the glass variety grates and scratches.
The very finest brooches change hands for £500 or more today, but more simple and no less charming examples can be had for as little as £10. Look out also for jet hatpins at £40-60; buttons from £5 and the somewhat rarer snuffboxes at £200-300.
Gold mourning jewellery has been worn since the middle ages and became popular in the 15th and 16th century with macabre symbols of skulls, coffins, and gravestones being the most common. They were replaced in the Georgian and Victorian eras with more sentimental flowers, hearts, crosses, and ivy leaves.
Decoration was usually in black enamels sometimes including pearls – representing tears and sincerity – and often incorporating brief epithets such as “In memory of” or “Forget me not”, together with memoriam inscriptions giving the deceased’s name or monogram, and the date and sometimes cause of death. These are particularly poignant, especially in the case of the death of a child. The brooch on the left of this picture is one example of the latter.
Jewellery containing the plaited hair of the deceased dates from the mid-17th century but is found more readily today dating from the 19th century. Most common are lockets, the reverse of which contain a lock or plait beneath a thin cover of rock crystal or glass. Often the hair is woven into intricate patterns or knots.
Rings, bracelets, earrings, watch fobs and necklaces all became a popular way of keeping the memory of a loved one near. I’ve even one commemorating the death of a pet dog.