Victorian Mourning Jewelry: Wearable memorials that contained the hair of the deceased, 1750-1900

Victorian mourning jewelry was popular in the late 1800s and was used as a tribute or memento to remind the wearer about their love for the person they had lost.

Death was a regular occurrence in Victorian times, due to widespread diseases such as cholera and scarlet fever. For this reason, the loss of a loved one was not a shocking event, but a tragic part of everyday life.

The popularity of mourning jewelry reached its peak during the Victorian era (1837–1901). Queen Victoria was deeply in love with her husband, Prince Albert, and when he died in 1861, she fell into a prolonged depression.

Queen Victoria spent the next four decades wearing black crepe dresses and mourning jewelry. She commissioned portraits, monuments and busts of Prince Albert and other mementos that commemorated their deceased spouse.

As Queen Victoria set the example for her court and was an acclaimed public figure, wearing mourning jewelry became fashionable. The elite and the wealthy gave lockets, bracelets, necklaces and rings to remember their loved ones.

Common materials included jet, onyx, pearl, dark tortoiseshell, black enamel, swamp oak, vulcanite, and gutta-percha (a natural rubber made from Southeast Asian trees).

White enamel represents the death of an unmarried female virgin or a child. Children were sometimes remembered with beads, which represented tears.

Turquoise meant 'thinking of you'. Wealthy families set precious stones in mourning jewelry made for their loved ones.

Beyond the usual jewelry material, mourning jewelry has some unique things. Hair was used to create everything from exquisitely detailed miniature scenes in jewelry to braided chains to hold clocks and pendants, and even to create large pieces of commemorative art.

By the mid-1800s, due to the popularity of commemorative jewelry and art, England was importing 50 tons of hair a year to complement the deceased.

Slightly rare in Victorian mourning jewelry, teeth are also visible in some pieces – notably rings. It was much less common than hair, and you rarely see these at auctions or antique stores.

Some pieces contain scraps of clothing or clothing, possibly from the clothing of the deceased. Other designs include tintype portraits or miniatures of the deceased.

This is common in lockets, where a photo or portrait may have a lock of hair on one side of the locket and the other side. Mourning brooches often include a lock of hair or a place to hold a special symbolic design.

Mourning jewelry may seem monotonous to our modern sensibilities, but understanding the time when it was worn gives a different perspective. The average lifespan during the Victorian era was 40 to 45 years.

Europe was in an almost constant state of war, and cholera, typhoid, smallpox and scarlet fever were common killers. About one in three children die before the age of five, and sometimes epidemics cause this number to rise to one in two.

Simply put, death was a constant companion in the Victorian era. The bereavement jewels brought little relief to survivors who had suffered repeated losses.

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