photo of a mourning brooch featuring an ornate heart shaped locket.

photo of a filigree and onyx mourning pendant

Victorian Mourning and Sentimental Jewelry

By Andrea Guyot Twombly

Even before Queen Victoria sent the fashion of mourning and mourning jewelry to its peak, wearing a ring or brooch to show a state of mourning was a practice as early as 1649.

We can, however, thank Queen Victoria and her lengthy mourning (she mourned for the rest of her life after the loss of Prince Albert) for jewelry fashions that were developed, mostly of jet, to be worn with the black bombazine fabric of the times, and design in mourning jewelry received as much attention as the funeral occasions themselves.

Jet is fossilized driftwood and has been used for making beads and ornaments since the Bronze Age. It has also been referred to as black amber. Jet, not only dug, was supplemented with “washed” jet, which is sent ashore by the sea on the coast of England. Most pieces of jet are quite small.

Turned jet beads were first produced in the early 19th century, when a retired navy captain living in Whitby, had initial success and passed his knowledge along. 

In 1850, Thomas Andrews became the jet ornament maker to Queen Victoria, and in 1851 the first jewelry made of jet went on exhibit and the business of making jewelry from jet had begun. Not long after, it was being exported to Bavaria and France.

Demand for jet jewelry reached a peak in 1861, triggered by the death of Prince Albert. By 1870, 1500 well paid employees were engaged in the craft of working jet into beautiful jewelry and other objects, even caskets are exhibited at St. Thomas’s Museum, and a clock case shown at the Museum of Archeology and Bygones in Scarborough, England.

The boom was short-lived however, and by 1921 there were 40 workers of Whitby jet remaining. Changes in fashion and competition from cheaper glass and synthetic jet was growing.

Other materials used in making Mourning jewelry included bog oak, a dark brown wood found in Ireland, brass for bases, tortoise shell, gold, silver, ivory, and black enamel, pinchbeck, an alloy of copper and zinc and rolled gold. Using the base metals allowed for a broader, more affordable market base.

More elaborate pieces of jewelry were often made using pierced metal with gold wire, which gave it a lacy appearance. These filigree and jet brooches were often decorated with seed pearls, symbolic of tears.

Victorian hair jewelry consisted of lockets and fancy brooches in which a lock of the deceased person’s hair would be encased. Long locks of hair were braided into bracelets. James Laver, author of Victoriana, published in 1966, describes hair jewelry as “a strange and rather morbid by-product of the Victorian taste for mementoes of the dead.”

The development of the photographic process led to the decline of hair jewelry. This new technology allowed the bereaved to carry a small photo of their deceased loved one in a locket, brooch, or pendant. Photographs also allowed these lockets and other jewelry to be worn with photos of living loved ones, expanding the market to romantic Victorian jewelry.

A photo taken at the Museum of Scotland of some original Whitby jet mourning jewelry.
Whitby jet necklace and bracelet on display at 
the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

In 1887, 22 years after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria finally agreed to wear silver jewelry on state occasions, and allowed a lightening up on the rules of mourning that had dictated jewelry fashions for so long. This shift of mood in jewelry from mourning to romantic was not without its cost, however, and the jet industry in Whitby slumped rapidly - making way for the expansion of the silversmith jewelers, and leading to the formation of the Birmingham Jewelers’ and Silversmiths’ Association in 1887. The Association quickly began a training program and the silver jewelry making industry was on its way.

Silver love brooches became enormously popular due to the simplicity of manufacture combined with the ease of modification using simple stamping tools. This ability to produce the brooches at a low labor cost allowed them to be sold inexpensively, so that even the lower classes could afford a sentimental gift. Birds, hearts, flowers, handshake symbols, leaves and initials set up in individual names or initials were some of the many motifs used in the symbolic language of this Victorian jewelry.

Three motifs frequently found together on love brooches, as well as mourning, were the cross, anchor, and heart, representing faith, hope, and charity.

Hearts and arrows were also used, along with flowers and vine embellishments to let the receiver know of their admirer’s affection, that he has been “shot through the heart.”

Other broader jewelry categories were produced, which might have used a Bible verse, or “season’s greetings”, or Mother, Baby, or the word love were popular with the growing middle class.

Queen Victoria, with her tremendous influence at the time, opened gates for the jewelry industry. Many motifs and symbols currently manufactured today can have their origination traced back to this fashion trend, so that even in the 21st century can be found on the shoulder or as a pendant of women everywhere.

photo of a heart shaped filigree and onyx mourning brooch.

To learn more about mourning jewelry, continue your search here........

 

 

 

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