The Art of Mourning Jewellery
Anyone who is interested in exploring antiques is comfortable with the idea that their particular treasures were once owned by people who are no longer with us. Indeed, that connection with human history is a large part of the appeal. But there is something rather pointed – and poten- tially divisive – about the collecting of mourning jewellery.
Decorative memorials to the dead, once worn by those who have long since passed over themselves – are very much a matter of personal taste. What is a deeply fascinating pursuit to some can be, to others, a creepy obsession that they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Still, there is no denying that mourning jewellery offers an intimate connection to times past – which was of course the point of it in the first place.
MEET THE COLLECTOR
And if you want an inspiring introduction to this idiosyncratic topic, you couldn’t do better than hear what Australian collector ‘Lord’ Hayden Peters has to say about it.
Hayden’s website art of mourning.com is a treasure trove of essays and pictures ranging across such topics as jewels, mourning clothes and symbolism. Over the past 15 years or so, he has amassed a personal collection of some 600 pieces. “My collection can go dormant for a few months, but then the passion to expand the jewels is usually something that I can’t help but be drawn to,” he says. And what drives that passion? Something as far from the gothic and macabre as it’s possible to get: “It’s all about love at the end of the day.”
This was a revelation that hit him while he was pursuing his early passion for Victorian silver. “I grew up in an environment where there were a lot of eclectic personalities,” he says, “Couture dressmakers and antique collectors. I missed out on the wild years most kids had at my age and worked as hard as I could to collect.” One day he saw a ring with ‘In Memory Of ’ written on top in black enamel, with a glass compartment underneath the bezel and a dedication to Mary Ann Lewis, who died in 1853. “Suddenly, I thought that was the most loving, caring and beautiful thing anyone could do for another; wear a jewel to represent them and keep those memories alive.”
Hayden had found his collecting niche, and every item he found drove him to explore further. “I began to study the history – social, cultural, fashion and political – in a five-year bracket around whatever piece I bought. Over time, I’ve amassed a working knowledge between 1550-1920, just from collecting the jewels!” (He went on to major in history and archaeology at university.) Today his collection of rings, lockets, accessories, ephemera, and any other peripherals related to mourning aims to show continuity across the centuries.
The wearing of mourning jewellery as we understand it began in the Middle Ages. Where common folk might have worn a sprig of rosemary to remember their loved ones, royal personages in particular took to more sumptuous memorials. You can see a mourning ring on the finger of Christina, widowed Duchess of Milan, for instance, in Holbein’s full-length portrait of her, now in the National Gallery. “As the custom grew, funds would actually be allocated in the will for mourning pieces to be made for friends and family.”
The early imagery on these, echoing the memorials seen in churches, was often basic and uncompromising: a grinning skull to remind you that we are all on the same road and, physically at least, come to the same end. As time went on, the focus shifted somewhat from the Grim Reaper to the Dear Departed and, as the symbols softened into classical images of urns and cypress and willow trees, the jewels became more appropriate to an elegant Jane Austen heroine than a Heavy Metal drummer.
Another Regency fashion, which may look a little creepy now, but has a romantic history, is the ‘eye portrait’. It’s said that the Prince Regent himself, having contracted himself to the unsuitably Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert, took to secretly wearing a painting of his clandestine wife’s eye pinned on the underside of his lapel. Although it can’t have been that much of a secret, since his action started a widespread craze. “As it has well into the 20th and 21st centuries, royalty dominates fashion outcomes,” says Hayden. This was originally not mourning but ‘sentimental’ jewellery,of course, which is a collecting field in its own right. But, as with all sentimental jewellery, time and mortality transferred it from one category to the other, and what was once given as a love token might be later reset or adapted by the mourner. The concept of the eye of the beloved watching from beyond the grave may seem gruesome today but, in the days be- fore photography, no doubt a welcome remembrance to some.
Royal fashion continued to have an influence on mourning jewellery and Whitby, home of Dracula, is also home to substantial deposits of a strange substance that became very associated with death in the Victorian era. Whitby jet is a mineral-like substance made from trees that grew in the area more than 180 million years ago, which can be worked like stone and attracted the admiration of the picky Romans. The Victorian trade in jet jewellery was significantly boosted by the deep mourning affected by the ‘Widow of Windsor’. Though, even at the time of the Great Exhibition, a decade before Prince Albert died, Whitby already boasted 50 jet workshops. By 1873 it was said that 200 men were mining in the area and the industry employed 1,500 men in all. Supplies were severely depleted, adding to the value of antique pieces today.
One feature of mourning and sentimental jewellery that divides opinion rather more is the use of human hair in the tokens. “If one was going on holiday or to war, then a lock of hair or a miniature portrait would be a wonderful token to remember them by,” explains Hayden. But while the carrying of a lock of a child’s or lover’s hair in, appropriately enough, a locket (though the words are not related) is one thing, the weaving of hair cut off post mortem conjures up less attractive images that might put some people off today. Nevertheless, this was a booming indus- try throughout the 19th century. “The majority of hairwork pieces are for love tokens, not for death or mourning and were done from one’s own hair” says Hayden. “But the craft developed into a profession and the hair might be from someone else – or even horse-hair.”
Hairwork is still practised in the southern states of the USA and in Sweden, says Hayden, by groups who still teach how to do it. “It’s having a bit of a revival, there’s a lovely 1855 book by Mark Campbell that details how to do your own hair working, which is great to see. One day I hope to do some myself, when I get a free moment!”
This isn’t likely to be soon for, despite the work and devotion he pours into it, collecting and publicising the art of mourning is not Hayden’s day job. “I wish it were! It’s almost a compulsion and a need to teach and educate about these jewels and the mourning/sentimental industry. My website has been running since 2005, just to get the knowledge out of my head and share it with others. Currently, it’s backlogged with articles over the next several months with three articles a week!”
Hayden works as a creative director, predominantly in digital, to which he finds his collecting passion surprisingly relevant. “I find that my historical knowledge, my knowledge of technology and its growth over modern times, has given me a great perspective on how our culture will adapt to modern technologies and things to come.” Hayden’s passion may be niche, but it is internationally followed. “There are some wonderful collections in Australia, the UK and France,” he says, “But most of all, in America. They have the cultural perspective and went through enough socio-political turmoil during the 19th century (at the height of the mourning industry) to mass-produce their own variations on mourning jewels. I know a lady in the US who has one of the best collections I’ve seen outside of the British Museum.”
COLLECTING MOURNING JEWELLERY
If you are thinking of starting your own collection of mourning or sentimental jewellery use the resources above to accustom yourself to the tell-tale materials and symbols so you know what to watch out for when sorting through general jewellery. Prices can start very reasonably, from around £100. But beyond that, the sky’s the limit. At Sotheby’s last December, the sale of the jewellery collec- tion of the late Michael Wellby saw mourning pieces routinely smashing their estimates, with one enamel and diamond mourning ring estimated at £1,500 to £2,000 going for £10,000!
Mourning Art and Jewelry by Maureen DeLorme (Schiffer Publishing, 2004).
Sentimental Jewellery by Ann Luthi (Shire, 2002).