Like with hair work jewelry, there’s a common misconception that Victorian jewelry made of black materials was always worn by those in mourning. This includes pieces made of jet, vulcanite, gutta-percha, and bog oak.
While it’s true that many pieces of this type of jewelry were meant for mourning, not all black adornment was intended for this purpose. So how do you tell the difference? It’s often in the symbolism, or lack thereof, held in within the piece.
The first mourning type of jewelry was Memento Mori. These objects were more overtly associated with symbols of death including skulls, skeletons, and even coffins. The message in these pieces wasn’t actually morbid, however. They signified being mindful of death and encouraged living a righteous life. These items preceded jewelry usually characterized as mourning jewelry by today’s collectors.
When looking at true mourning jewelry worn in the late 1700s throughout the 1800s, pieces including an “in memory of” inscription in the motif or engraved on the back was clearly intended for mourning wear. Many pieces had no further personalization because there was little time to order custom-made adornment when mourning began immediately following the unexpected death of a loved one. Generic items were purchased at shops specializing in attire for the bereaved. Mourning pieces were also passed down in families and worn again and again making personalizing many of them less desirable.
There are some symbols to look for with mourning jewelry, however, to help to further identify it. Oak sprays, especially those with one empty acorn cup, were carved into some mourning pieces. Flowers such as lily-of-the-valley, symbolizing the reuniting of loved ones who’ve departed, were also popular. Forget-me-nots imparting a more obvious connection were also used in jewelry for mourners as were weeping willow scenes.
Crosses were commonly acceptable expressions of mourning and often worn as pendants in a variety of black materials. Anchors signifying hope and funeral urns also had their place in jewelry intended for mourners.
Jewelry worn during “first mourning,” the first months after the death of a loved one, had a matte black finish referred to as “dead black” by those seeking these items. Most all of these pieces were worn during mourning, how long depended on the closeness of the deceased, and they will have motifs and embellishments in accordance with mourning traditions.
Keep in mind that white materials, especially ivory, were used in early mourning pieces as symbols of innocence so not all jewelry of this nature will be solid black. This was especially true when memorializing a child or a young woman, according to historian Hayden Peters who curates the Art of Mourning website. Additionally, seed pearls represented tears in many mourning pieces regardless of the age of the person being memorialized. But, they were also symbolic of beauty and used in wedding jewelry so examining items closely for relevant clues will further confirm mourning pieces.
When It’s Not Mourning Jewelry
Many collectors and dealers don’t realize that black jewelry was actually popular as a fashion statement in the mid- to late-1800s. So while mourning jewelry was worn to ascribe to a code of conduct, other black jewelry was simply in style at the time.
An English publication called The Queen shared in 1870 that jet jewelry was “much in Vogue” for “social wear” as well as mourning adornment. The article suggested wearing less expensive French jet, which is actually very dark red or black glass, along with a naturally mined jet, which is more durable since it is made of carbon.
Also keep in mind that souvenir jewelry made of jet was sold in Whitby, England, where the material was harvested so not every piece with a name carved within was actually worn in remembrance of a loved one. Polished jet items with no mourning connotation in the carving, related decorative elements, or memorial inscriptions are most likely not mourning pieces.
Another thing to keep in mind when shopping for mourning pieces is that black Bakelite jewelry, especially cameo necklaces on celluloid chains, are sometimes mislabeled as mourning jewelry. Bakelite jewelry of this nature made around 1930 would be classified as a Victorian revival and rarely worn by mourners since the practice waned in the early 1900s.