The Female in Mourning Jewels

Hayden Peters, founder and creative director of Art of Mourning gives us an illustrated tour of female mourning jewellery. Exploring the mourning industry of the 16th-19th centuries we learn about different trends in design and how this reflects cultural attitudes and social norms of the time. From memento mori to locks of hair and cutting diamonds Hayden provides a truly fascinating journey through mourning practice, fashion and identity.


– Hayden Peters –

Hayden is a creative director, jewellery historian and writer/founder of For over 10 years, Hayden has been writing, studying and teaching mourning and sentimental jewels as well as the fashion and art that surrounds them.
Hayden can also be found on:

Classical female, pointing to the heavens with willow and faith, hope, charity symbolism. Painted in sepia, c.1780.

Visual representation of the female in mourning is a literal one. Of the major symbols that replaced the memento mori style of the pre-1760s, the female became the one symbol to become the primary focus of the jewel. Archaeological excavation was an important element to the growth of classical culture in the 18th century. Digs in Pompeii and Herculaneum had discoveries in 1711, but resumed with major excavations in 1738, igniting the passion and interest in artists, thinkers and antiquarians. What stemmed from this was a change in how death was represented in jewellery. A major humanist movement in the Enlightenment followed the Neoclassical era, which allowed for questioning of traditional concepts of life and social structure. Since the Reformation and its impact upon religious thought, society was changing to look at itself in an individual way. Guilds, education and disseminated thought allowed for people to learn new concepts that were prohibited from earlier generations. New skills and crafts meant that an individual could break away from the family unit and learn something that was outside of the family craft. By the Neoclassical period of the late 18th century, industrialisation allowed for middle classes to grow new wealth, something the merchant classes had previously began to appreciate through importing and exporting goods globally. Hair weaving was one of the earliest modern professional female practices, with women being employed in the late 17th century to weave hair into a jewel. With these factors in mind, the female as a representation of the human experience became the focus of a jewel’s symbol, then the focus of a family in mourning.


Memento mori ribbon slide. Faceted crystal with cherubs and skeleton stating ‘come ye blessed’, c.1680.
Memento mori was important for its dominance and direct action of its representation. You will die and you will be judged. Your body and its desecration are facts of living. Having these elements within a jewel are grounding and provoke a visceral response in the person who is viewing the jewel on the person who is wearing it. By the Neoclassical period, allegory had taken its place. Mourning in a jewel was now a weeping female figure at the centre of the jewel, flanked by an urn, broken column, weeping willow or other scenario of idyllic peace. Her dress was typically that of the classical Greek figure, featuring an under-bust dress, with many folds draping around her. Profiles of the lady also have the classical Roman or Greek nose and curled hair, creating the symbol of mourning that would last from c.1760-c.1820. Miniatures with individual portraits of a gentleman or female in modern dress and high detail are closer to actual portrait miniatures, rather than being the allegory of the female in mourning. Allusions to her being a Madonna figure are consistent with many of the Greek and Roman symbols of the time having dual meanings, much like ‘putti’ and ‘cherub’ associations, as this made for easier cultural exchange between societies which were either Protestant or Catholic. Regardless, the female is the primary element of mourning, she is the human sadness, relating to male or female. She is an aspiration, something that all society can identify with and unite behind. Much like the matriarchal figure, she is the mother of grief and the source of our own lives.
Female pointing out to sea. Watercolour, c.1810.
It was the Victorians that used the female element and made it the literal one. By the 1840s, European society had suffered a massive cultural upheaval and it needed stability. Where else to look for stability, but in that of the family unit itself? Victoria and her government were very wary of the importance of stability and how cultural values could impact a society. Previously, the monarchy had been the primary focus for fashion and change. Any threat to this would impact back upon the culture of a society and threaten it. France had existed through the Terror and Napoleon, Britain had lost the Americas and questioning of the monarchy as the figureheads for much of the socio-political changes meant that they needed to find a way to create solidarity.
Art and fashion are primary elements of maintaining a cultural identity. Both require a high level of income to create an industry that can be sustainable. If there is consistent change in fashion, milliners, jewellers, importing of fabrics and trade of goods maintain a healthy economy. Society craves change and style, all to show personal wealth, familial wealth and establish a personal identity. For the Victorians, a shift away from the excess of Neoclassicism to a new movement, known as the ‘Gothic Revival’ in jewels, put an emphasis on the values of the medieval period, with Christian morality and values. Dominating gold floral elements bordered lockets, rings and brooches, with thick bands of black enamel featuring the statement of ‘IN MEMORY OF’ boldly stated that a family was in mourning.
Black enamel brooch with hair, c.1840 with Gothic Revival lettering.

Popularising sentimentality was something Queen Victoria was exceptional at maintaining. A sentimental lady in her own right, often keeping the hair of others and sharing her own in lockets, society copied her mannerisms and the jewels of mourning and sentimentality became the socially correct items to wear. Mourning was starting to become fashion. The impact of this upon the family put all the emphasis of mourning and identity upon the matriarch. The female was now the literal representation of mourning and sentimentality in the household. Standards of mourning stages became mandatory, with the three stages being adhered to before the lady could emerge from mourning and re-enter society. Rules about wearing flat black and no reflective surfaces for the first stage, introducing jewels, lilac and red for half mourning, then further colours  for the third stage needed to be respected, otherwise it was a poor reflection upon the family.


Black enamel ‘IN MEMORY OF’ rung, c.1889.

When one considers the impact upon this for a lady in the mid-19th century, it is an imposition that men did not have. A lady, who was living in a time of higher mortality, might suffer a family member’s death, be it extended or not, then have to live further and further into periods of mourning. Dresses and the expense around mourning were high, so existing dresses would be dyed or amended with ribbon to enter mourning. As the 19th century continued, some would never leave mourning at all.


Vulcanite pendant with pearl cross and wheat sheafs, c.1870s.
Victoria’s entrance into perpetual mourning from 1861 became a fashionable catalyst. Her personal tastes around sentimentality had already engrained mourning and jewels into popular fashion, with giving hairwork in a locket a typical gift. However, society now had a static monarch, so how could they maintain popular fashion? There was no seasonal change from her, so other places were looked to as being the height of fashion. Before this could happen, however, mourning and popular fashion became one. Whitby Jet and its imitators carved and pressed black jewels at an enormous rate. By the 1870s, the annual turnover of the Whitby jet industry was said to be over one hundred thousand pounds, with a jet craftsperson earning between three and four pounds a week. Jet and lighter jewels that could maintain hair were more fashionable from the 1850-1870 period, as fashion became larger, such as the crinoline, so these jewels were larger and lighter to wear. The government followed, allowing for alloys in jewels to be allowed in the Hallmarking Act of 1851. Women, in their larger fashion, were the objects of sentimentality, becoming a walking canvas for mourning or sentimentality.

With a generation of women in mourning, challenges to a very static style came from women who wanted to change. No more would they want to follow Victoria’s self-imposed mourning rituals or wear the popular black dress, regardless of if they were in mourning or not.


Black enamel ‘IN MEMORY OF’ ring with serpent symbolism. c.1953.
The entire mourning industry was in a decline from the mid 1880s – an entire generation of a culture with once fluid fashion changes had been living under the shadow of mainstream mourning culture from 1861, due mostly to a queen perpetually in mourning. By 1887, for Victoria’s golden jubilee, she had started to lessen the mourning restrictions and re-emerge in public, but there was even a cultural shift that had begun with women who lived as the centre of household mourning starting to rebel against the older ways. Style had remained largely consistent with little movement since the 1860s, though women’s clothing had lost the heavier crinolines, bold mourning jewels remained bold and prominent. This female paradigm shift had started to become an outward rebellion, with some women even wearing their veils backwards as an act of defiance. The Art Nouveau movement emerged as a breath of fresh air, with its opulent, organic, styles, using nature as its dominant motif, rather than retroactively mining the past for revival styles. Jet was not conducive to this new art movement and did not adapt. Black stones used as a material following this period in Art Deco were often onyx or glass, which became, and remains, popular to this day.
New wealth from the Americas funded the artisans behind these new movements. From 1900, there was a significant split in jewellery styles. Court-worn jewels were still based around the Rococo Revival style and using highly privileged, material-based gems, such as diamonds. This was normal around European Courts and remained consistent from the 19th century. In Europe, the organic influence of Art Nouveau and its use of coloured gems and enamel became popular. The Arts and Crafts movement flourished in Britain as a response to mechanisation; bringing back a return to traditional crafts. This remained consistent up to the beginning of the First World War.

South African diamonds produced 90% of the world’s diamonds in 1890, with a slight interruption by the Boer War in 1899-1902. White gold and platinum were used to enhance the look of the diamond, leading this to become one of the most popular styles in fashion for the time. Its influence can be seen today, with ‘white’ jewellery being more popular than the silver influence of the 1880s simply because diamonds were enhanced by the white colouring of the metal and diamonds themselves were cheaper and more accessible.


Black enamel ‘IN MEMORY OF’ ring.
With all these impacts against the mourning industry, the female had finally found an independent identity that was not only symbolic. Even though World War I and the global pandemic of influenza in 1918 brought about a massive impact to the global mortality rate, outside of court mourning, mourning as a standard did not reemerge. Independence and personalisation in mourning, outside of religious belief, became insular. A person can wear a jewel for another because they love that person, not because it was a social standard. A man did not have to put aside a great portion of his savings to a burial society in order for the perfect funeral and familial outfitting. Death was what now a family made of it.
Mourning is not gender or racially specific. It is a feeling that one shares for the person one loves. In terms of jewellery and the mourning industry of the 16th-19th centuries, it was one of the most important fashions that a lady was required to follow, as its importance reflected the entire family. This expectation removes the basic truth to what mourning in fashion really is, which is simply love.

2 responses to “The Female in Mourning Jewels”

  1. […] Women’s Day piece, Corpse Bride written by Carla Valentine. I would also recommend reading The Female in Mourning Jewelry and Mortuary Professions for Ladies.You might remember Carla from February’s Ephemera. She […]

  2. […] Black enamel brooch with hair, c.1840 with Gothic Revival lettering… […]