mourning the death of Albert. Since there is a long standing tradition of emulating the court style, two countries followed suit, carrying with them a continental fad. The tradition
of mourning jewelry was in existence long before that, however. The Victorian period was simply the height of the tradition. In reality, the existence of wearing jewelry to commemorate a person’s life has been around long time. This will focus on the 300 year time span from the Georgian era to the turn of the 20th Century, but first, let’s take a brief look at how we got to that point starting the 1600’s.
Part I- Commemorative Jewelry
One of the most famous examples of this were rings made to commemorate the execution of King Charles I. Examples of rings can be found containing a portrait of the King and often the initials CR engraved on them. This is an example from Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill collection made around 1649-1650.
This example of the King Charles I ring contains an important concept of the progression of this type of jewelry -Memento Mori Jewelry. (These are the Death Head Rings alluded to in the previous paragraph and were made long before King Charles I) His ring contained the phrase, “Prepared be to Follow Me” which is an extension of the popular motto “Remember You Must Die” found in the Memento Mori rings of the 16th and 17th Centuries. These types of rings grew into the concept of Mourning Rings. They were worn by the learned of the day and not
intended as Mourning Rings at all. Instead these rings showed it’s wearer to be a philosophical thinker, openly acknowledging the fact that we all must die.
The symbols that these rings contained like skulls, skeletons, crossbones, serpents (symbols of wisdom and eternity) and hourglasses eventually found their way into the mourning jewelry of later years. In this time however, they were not yet used as mourning tokens. They were powerful symbols and contained a language all their own.
Take a look at some Memento Mori pieces and you’ll see what I mean.
Century status symbol.
By the 1690’s, Death Head Rings were adapted to include a lock of hair of the deceased. At the turn of the 1700’s, these rings were beginning to morph into the mourning rings we know today and were increasingly popular throughout the next two centuries.
Now let's take a look at some of the symbolism that will dominate these type of rings for the next 200 years and the stories that lie behind the symbols.
*Flowers do show up in memento mori jewelry. Flowers and plants become important symbols later in the Victorian period. People have written extensive books on the language of flowers which you can delve into if interested. For this discussion, a flower represents our own inclusion in the circle of life. When we die and are buried, our bodies fuel the new growth on
the ground above. It was a very comforting thought in this era to think that we can nourish life after we are gone.
In a time when the average life span was less than 40 years and death was a constant companion, these symbols provided the people of this time with a way to focus on the beauty of life. These rings and the jewelry that followed are not morbid pieces of history, but a living reminder of the wonders of our lives. They give us a way to remember the beliefs that are important to us and those we loved.
…..coming soon Part II- Sentimental Jewelry