Is It Memento Mori or Mourning Jewelry?

How to distinguish two types of antique jewelry related to death

Louis XIV carnelian memento mori intalgio ring with skull carving, c.1680 (top); "Mary Ann Lewis" "In Memory Of" ring, featuring black enamel serpents coiled across the shoulders and a hair compartment under the bezel, 1853

Hayden Peters/

While both memento mori and mourning jewelry relate to death, the reason they were worn is very different and they look nothing alike once you start to examine them. These types of jewelry date to different periods as well. Continue to learn more about the similarities and differences between them.

Memento Mori

Memento mori jewelry motifs depict skulls, skeletons, worms, coffins and other symbols of death, just as they did in other artistic renderings of the day such as paintings and sculptures. While it seems wickedly macabre and fascinating now, this type of adornment was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, and pieces could take various forms—rings, pendants, or brooches, for example.

This type of jewelry was most often made of gold with black enamel (not to be confused with later mourning jewelry, as shown in the illustration here, the top ring with skull motif dates to 1650 while the one below dates two centuries later to 1853), though they might contain faceted gems, carved stones, and/or colored enamel, and often carried religious or inspirational inscriptions. Later mourning pieces were primarily black, as discussed below. 

Memento mori jewelry did not commemorate a particular person early on, but served as a general reminder of mortality (in Latin, memento mori means "remember you must die" or "be mindful of death"), to encourage virtuous living and making the most of one's fleeting life. Some wedding rings had memento mori inscriptions during this period. Memento mori pieces were more often handed out to mourners at funerals, however, and can be considered the forerunner to mourning jewelry as some pieces became personalized with initials to remember specific individuals toward the end of the 1600s. 

But if you think you have a genuine piece of memento mori jewelry, be sure to check it over carefully for signs of age and consider having it authenticated by a professional. Why? This type of jewelry is rarely found in the secondary marketplace today, and when properly authenticated the value can be quite high. Keep in mind that the macabre motifs used in these pieces have been reincarnated in everything from Mexican biker rings to contemporary “goth” pieces. Some fabrications take old Victorian and Georgian jewelry findings and embellish them with newly made skulls and the like being purveyed as old memento mori. 

Comparing Memento Mori to Mourning Jewelry

More than a hundred years ago, no well-dressed person would have considered his or her mourning outfit complete without a piece—or preferably several pieces—of special jewelry. "A few trinkets must be worn, if only to accentuate the general sombreness of the costume," stated an 1892 article on mourning in The Queen, a British society and fashion magazine. 

While mourning jewelry can indeed be made of gold and enameled in black (see ring dating to 1853 above), that is one of its only commonalities with memento mori other than being related to death. In comparison to memento mori, Victorian mourning jewelry incorporated motifs that were less morbid and the colors were decidedly muted.

Using skulls, skeletons and the like was not the norm during the height of mourning jewelry production in the 1800s. Victorian symbolism was much more subtle. Common motifs included crosses, anchors (which symbolized steadfast faith) and a hand holding a yew branch or flower. Pearls, which often symbolized tears, were the most common accents in mourning pieces.

Along with accentuating somberness, mourning jewelry was a way of keeping the dear departed near you—literally. It was quite common for these pieces to include a lock of the deceased's hair (the "in memory of" ring shown above has a compartment for hair in the back). Traditionally, the hair would appear under glass, neatly braided or curled up in a locket, ring, or pin. But the 1830s saw the beginning of a mania for pieces made of hair.

Steamed and plaited strands were stuffed into tubes of open metalwork and shaped into bow pins, watch chains, and necklaces, which fastened with metal clasps (made of gold for the rich and pinchbeck for the poor in early pieces, rolled gold was used later). Usually, a professional jeweler, one who specialized in mourning jewelry, did the work. But if you wanted to be sure your loved one's locks were being used—some unscrupulous craftsmen were known to substitute horsehair—magazines such as The Godey's Lady's Book published articles on making your hair jewelry.

Hair had another use as well, it could be dried, ground up, and mixed with water, creating an inky liquid. This ink would then be used to write inscriptions and paint woeful scenes on the enameled surface of a ring or pendant. A typical scene might depict a landscape full of weeping willows, or a nymph drooping sadly beside an urn or monument.

Not all Victorian hair jewelry was made with mourning in mind. Sentimental Victorians made hair workpieces for other reasons as well. 

Victorian Hairwork Jewelry 

Such images were especially common in the first generation of mourning jewelry, usually described as pre-Victorian, which dates from the mid-18th century. Memorial or commemorative pieces weren't unknown before then. As mentioned above, people began wearing memento mori with loved ones' initials inscribed in them in the late 1600s and they sometimes contained a bit of hair as well. But it was the burgeoning development of ready-made lockets, brooches or rings with standardized designs—which could be engraved or otherwise customized—that popularized the idea of pieces specially made for mourning.

The concept took off in the Victorian era, with its elaborate, rigid rituals for everything. Queen Victoria's prolonged mourning for her husband, Prince Albert (which began in 1861 and continued for decades), set an ideological example. And the increasing mass-production of jewelry made it possible for almost anyone to purchase a piece or two.

Like women, men wore mourning rings as well, and some of them were given out at funerals like earlier memento mori. But gents also wore watch chains, fobs, tie pins, and belt buckles as expressions of mourning. Women wore bracelets, necklaces, round or oval pins, earrings, and even tiaras with mourning symbols incorporated into the designs. Especially popular in the mid-19th century were swivel brooches, which revolved back to front. One side would contain strands of the loved one's hair, the other, a miniature likeness—a painting or perhaps one of those new-fangled photographs.

Since the forms were familiar, mourning jewelry was distinguished primarily by the materials used to make it. In contrast to memento mori, no brightly colored stones or vivid enameling could be used, of course—black (or very occasionally dark blue or brown) was the acceptable hue, perhaps lightened with neutral white and gray if the deceased had been a child to convey innocence. The most desirable and expensive material was jet, a fossilized wood (like coal). Light and easy to carve, jet was an ideal material to make the large, intricate pieces that became fashionable from 1850 on. Other popular materials were black onyx and dark tortoiseshell. Cheaper substitutes for jet included black glass (known as "French jet"), iron and vulcanite, a sort of hardened rubber.

Not all black jewelry was meant for mourning, however.

Was All Victorian Black Jewelry Meant for Mourning? 

As with mourning clothes, different stages of mourning jewelry existed. For the initial phase of deep mourning, materials had to be dull or opaque. In the later "secondary mourning" (i.e., less strict) period, when the bereaved were allowed to wear dark purple or gray, pieces could be faceted—cut steel was a good option, with its relatively discreet glitter—or polished to a high sheen as with jet. Although many people eventually put their mourning clothes aside, they often continued to wear their mourning jewelry for the rest of their lives. However, mourning pieces were only one of the types of jewelry popular during the period.

Special thanks to Troy Segal, contributing writer, for her assistance with this article.