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Victorian Mourning Jewelry: Wearable Memorials that contained Teeth and Hair of the Deceased

During the Victorian era, mourning jewelry was popular as a tribute or memento to remember a deceased loved one. Due to the popularity of memorial jewelry and art. England imported 50 Tons of hair a year to supplement the deceased’s during the mid-1800s. In the Victorian times, epidemics such as cholera and scarlet fever were common causes of death. Losing a loved one is, therefore, not as shocking as it should be but an everyday occurrence.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria fell into a long depression. She wore black crepe dresses and mourning jewelry for most of the next four decades. As a reminder of her husband’s death, she commissioned portraits, memorials, and busts of Prince Albert. During Queen Victoria’s reign, mourning jewelry became popular as she set an example for her court and was admired by the public. The most common materials were jet, onyx, pearls, dark tortoiseshell, black enamel, bog oak, vulcanite, and gutta-percha (natural rubber derived from Southeast Asian trees). Aristocrats and the wealthy commissioned lockets, bracelets, necklaces, and rings as memorials for their loved ones.
The white enamel symbolizes the death of an unmarried female virgin or child. The tears of children were symbolized by pearls, which represented their memory. Turquoise symbolized ‘thinking of you. The mourning jewelry of wealthy families usually includes precious stones. Mourning jewelry featured some unique features beyond the usual materials. Jewelry, braided chains to hold watches and pendants, and even large framed memorial art pieces were made with hair. Teeth are also found in some Victorian mourning jewelry pieces – particularly rings. Antique stores and auctions rarely have these since they were less common than hair. Some pieces contain scraps of cloth or fabric from the deceased’s clothing. Some designs incorporate tintype portraits or miniature paintings of the deceased. Lockets often contain a photo or portrait on one side and a lock of hair on the other. Many mourning brooches included a place to keep a lock of hair or a symbolic design.

In today’s world, mourning jewelry may seem dreary, but understanding its history can change your perspective. During the Victorian era, the average lifespan was 40 to 45 years. Europe was almost constantly at war at the time, and many diseases were killing people, such as cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and scarlet fever. Epidemics sometimes caused one in two children to die before they turn five. Death was a constant companion during the Victorian era. Survivors who suffered frequent losses found solace in mourning jewelry.

#1 A set of onyx jewelry with gold and pearl depictions of sheaves of wheat.

A set of onyx jewelry with gold and pearl depictions of sheaves of wheat.

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#2 A gold and black mourning brooch with a plait of the deceased’s hair under glass.

A gold and black mourning brooch with a plait of the deceased’s hair under glass.

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#3 A gold mourning ring with black enamel, featuring two coffin-shaped bezels with faintly visible skeletons.

A gold mourning ring with black enamel, featuring two coffin-shaped bezels with faintly visible skeletons.

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#4 A gold mourning ring featuring a painting on ivory of two women with a funerary urn.

A gold mourning ring featuring a painting on ivory of two women with a funerary urn.

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#5 A mourning pendant with a miniature painting depicting a grieving mourner.

A mourning pendant with a miniature painting depicting a grieving mourner.

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#6 A gold and black mourning ring with a plait of the deceased’s hair set under glass.

A gold and black mourning ring with a plait of the deceased’s hair set under glass.

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#7 A gold mourning brooch woven with the hair of the deceased and bearing an inscription of the name Julia.

A gold mourning brooch woven with the hair of the deceased and bearing an inscription of the name Julia.

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#8 A tortoiseshell comb with a gold foliate scroll design.

A tortoiseshell comb with a gold foliate scroll design.

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#9 A gold mourning ring with a ruby and diamond and the initials EF in an Asian-style script.

A gold mourning ring with a ruby and diamond and the initials EF in an Asian-style script.

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#10 A bracelet made of brown table-worked hair with gold diamond findings.

A bracelet made of brown table-worked hair with gold diamond findings.

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#11 Hair mourning locket.

Hair mourning locket.

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#12 Mourning Brooche.

Mourning Brooche.

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#13 Mourning ring with an embedded image.

Mourning ring with an embedded image.

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#14 Victorian hair mourning jewelry.

Victorian hair mourning jewelry.

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#15 Victorian gold memorial brooch.

Victorian gold memorial brooch.

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#16 A memento mori pendant (circa 1540) found in England paints a vivid picture of mortality.

A memento mori pendant (circa 1540) found in England paints a vivid picture of mortality.

The inscription, however, has a more solacing message: Christ’s resurrection redeems sins.

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#17 A pearl and black chalcedony Victorian mourning pin with a floral motif reflects a gentler view of death.

A pearl and black chalcedony Victorian mourning pin with a floral motif reflects a gentler view of death.

Thirty-six natural pearls surround the pin and seed pearls adorn the flower petals and leaves.

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#18 This Victorian watch fob opens to reveal plaited locks of human hair.

This Victorian watch fob opens to reveal plaited locks of human hair.

The stone on its base is very dark, almost black. These features are typical of mourning jewelry.

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#19 Although not Victorian, this late 18th Century, 18K gold memorial ring from the Georgian period incorporates small pieces of hair under the base of the urn and in the willow tree.

Although not Victorian, this late 18th Century, 18K gold memorial ring from the Georgian period incorporates small pieces of hair under the base of the urn and in the willow tree.

The white enamel suggests the deceased was unmarried; the individual died on 19 January 1784 at the age of 51.

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#20 A finely woven hair necklace from the Victorian Era.

A finely woven hair necklace from the Victorian Era.

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#21 A miniature urn dangles from this gold mourning brooch.

A miniature urn dangles from this gold mourning brooch.

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Written by Alicia Linn

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