Mourning jewels

A photo of an early American Mourning ring.

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Bequest of Mrs. Hope Brown Russell
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

Jewelry to commemorate the death of a loved one generally dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century. The designs at this time were mostly of English origin and could be of anything from death’s heads and crossbones to represent the fear of death, or love knots as a symbol of endearment for the one lost. This beginning was not very imposing, but there was enough interest to keep this type of jewelry alive until it flourished in the eighteenth century.

In colonial America the idea of mourning jewelry was most popular in the form of mourning rings. A certain amount of the estate would be set aside in one’s will to supply everyone at one’s funeral with a ring to commemorate the death. George Washington left such a large portion of his estate that hundreds of mourning rings were made at this death. What is now quite maudlin, became so popular that it had to be curtailed by law.

Eighteenth century memorial jewelry had paintings on glass or on enamel. The style of the art has urns and broken columns represented, showing the influence of the classics. Used in the painting, real hair of the departed was worked to become a background weeping willow or the long hair of a weeping woman. This "hair-work" was inserted in lockets, pendants, rings, bracelets, pins, watch-chains and scarf pins, always ingeniously part of the design. During the nineteenth century, mourning jewelry lost much of its popularity, but a lock of hair was still kept in brooches or medallions employed as receptacles.

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