Usually crafted in black and sometimes containing hair of a lost loved one, Victorian mourning jewelry is a captivating look at how people of the 19th century viewed loss and love. Whether you see antique mourning jewelry as a beautiful statement or as a vaguely creepy part of history, these pieces can be quite collectible. Learn about the symbolism of mourning jewelry, the types that were made, and how to identify a valuable find.
What Is Victorian Mourning Jewelry?
Victorian mourning jewelry was popular during the late 1800s as a way for women to show their loss and remember loved ones who were gone. During the Victorian era, women were expected to dress entirely in black when they lost a loved one, offering the world visible evidence of their mourning. In addition to wearing black clothing, they wore black jewelry. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), mourning jewelry existed in the Middle Ages, but it really became popular when Queen Victoria went into mourning for her husband Prince Albert in 1861. After that point, fashionable women mourned the loss of their loved ones with special lockets, rings, necklaces, brooches, and more.
Materials Used in Antique Mourning Jewelry
Antique mourning jewelry used a variety of dark-colored materials, including jet, onyx, black glass (sometimes called French jet), black enamel, dark tortoiseshell, and black fossilized wood. You'll also see diamonds, pearls, and sometimes, white enamel. Beyond the usual jewelry materials, mourning jewelry contained some unique things.
- Human hair - In Victorian mourning jewelry, hair was a common addition. In fact, the GIA reports that England imported 50 tons of human hair each year during the Victorian period to supplement loved ones' hair in mourning jewelry. The hair was often woven in decorative patterns or framed in lockets.
- Human teeth - A bit rarer to find in Victorian mourning jewelry, teeth also appear in some pieces - particularly rings. This was far less common than hair, and you rarely see these at auctions or antique stores.
- Cloth or fabric - Some pieces contain scraps of cloth or fabric, likely from the deceased's clothing.
- Portraits and photographs - Some pieces incorporate tintype portraits or miniature paintings of the deceased. This is common in lockets, where a photo or portrait might occupy one side of the locket and a lock of hair the other side.
How to Identify Mourning Jewelry
If you're in an antique store or perusing the wares at an auction or estate sale, it helps to be able to identify this type of jewelry. What makes a piece of mourning jewelry different from an ordinary black ensemble? The biggest clues are inscriptions and the use of hair. These pieces will often feature dates, initials, and phrases like "in memory of."
Victorian Mourning Jewelry Symbolism
Because this was a highly personal and meaningful type of jewelry, mourning pieces contain rich symbolism. These are a few of the symbols you may see:
- Black color - The black color of most of these jewelry pieces symbolized mourning.
- White color - Use of white accents on some pieces symbolized the loss of an innocent, usually a child or young woman.
- Weeping willows - These graceful trees symbolized mourning.
- Urns and gravestones - Cemetery and funeral items represented the loss commemorated by the jewelry.
Types and Values of Victorian Mourning Jewelry
If you're considering collecting Victorian mourning jewelry, it's important to know a bit about the types and values. You'll see the following pieces of Victorian mourning jewelry for sale in antique shops, estate sales, and auctions.
Lockets are among some of the most significant pieces of Victorian mourning jewelry. They often contain hair, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes, they have a photograph of the deceased, and they are usually engraved. The materials used in the locket dramatically affect the price with base metal enameled lockets selling for under $200 and those with precious metals and gems going for much more. A monogrammed mourning locket crafted from a faceted piece of onyx, gold, and seed pearls sold for over $1,100. It had a portrait of a little girl inside it.
Watch Fobs With Hair
Although most mourning jewelry was designed for women, men did have mourning watch fobs. These pieces usually opened to reveal a place to keep a lock of hair. Many were crafted from silver, but some are gold. They featured onyx and jet, as well as black enamel. They range in value from under $200 to much more. Although it predates the Victorian era by a few years, a gold and agate watch fob with initials and human hair sold for about $500. Technically, this was Georgian mourning jewelry, but many of the characteristics were the same.
Pendants and Crosses
While many pendants were lockets that opened, some did not. These came in a variety of shapes, but crosses were especially popular. Some crosses were constructed from human hair, while others were made of jet or enameled metal. Small and simple examples sell for under $100, while those with ornate details and precious materials go for more. An onyx, gold, and seed pearl necklace with a large cross sold for $1,800.
Mourning bracelets come in different styles, including bangles, woven hair chains, beaded bracelets, and more. Some feature lockets for hair as part of the design. You can purchase simple antique mourning bracelets for around $200, but special pieces will go for much more. For example, a gold mourning bracelet with locks of hair and family members' names sold for over $650. It had a place to hold eight locks of hair with each person's name engraved on the back.
Mourning brooches often included a place to keep a lock of hair or a special symbolic design. They came in a variety of materials and are among the most common pieces of antique mourning jewelry. You can sometimes find them for under $100, but precious materials can make them much more valuable. A beautiful diamond and enamel mourning brooch with a weeping willow sold at Christies for almost $4,000.
Some Mourning Jewelry Traditions Still Exist
While the concept of Victorian mourning jewelry may seem foreign to people of today, there are versions of it that still exist. For instance, people use cremation jewelry to keep a loved one's ashes close. Times change, but the need to commemorate a loss remains.