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19 Jan 2015

Mourning Jewellery:
Remembering the Dearly Departed

Hello dear readers! My name is Josie and I’m currently doing an internship with Birmingham Museums Trust through the University of Birmingham and I think it’s wonderful. I never want to leave! Outside of my work in museums, I’m doing a PhD in archaeology looking at Victorian funerary practice.

I have visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery many times over the last 20 years, but I had never noticed that we have mourning jewellery on display until I went looking for it, which just shows how many hidden gems there are in the Birmingham collections! 

Tucked away above the bustle of the Edwardian tearooms and the splendour of the industrial gallery is gallery 6, which contains some simply stunning displays, including a collection of memorial and hair jewellery. In the middle of the busy and hands on 'In Touch' Gallery 15 there is another display case with memorial and posy rings.

I thought I'd share some photos of this beautiful jewellery and some information about each piece, telling the story of how they reflect changing fashions and attitudes towards death. For a more detailed account of trends in mourning jewellery, check out this post on my blog.

Although memento mori ('remember you must die') jewellery had been worn in the 16th century, with motifs such as skulls and skeletons to remind the wearer of their mortality and to encourage pray for the dead, it wasn't until the 17th century that jewellery was created in memory of specific individuals. The catalyst for this change was the death of Charles I, whose final words asked his royalist followers to 'remember me'. Locks of the King's Hair were treasured as relics and many rings with his portrait on the bezel - like this one, were created, although they might have only been worn in secrecy.

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Gold memorial ring with portrait of Charles I under convex glass cover. Currently on display in Gallery 6 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Dates to around 1700. 

The 'morbid' motifs used in memento mori pieces also continued to be used in mourning and memorial jewellery until the mid 18th century. Examples include rings with bezels in the shape of a skull, like this one, or even a coffin with skeleton (can you spot one in gallery 15?).

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A gold mourning ring, the head, a white enamelled skull and cross bones, the latter set, at ends, with 6 rosecut diamonds. Twisted shank with split shoulders. Currently on display in Gallery 15.

Many rings featured a background of hairwork or silk, often with a skeleton surrounded by the initials of the deceased in gold wire. There are two fine examples at the museum:

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A gold mourning ring with the letters ER in twisted wire and a skeleton in relief holding bone in right hand and hour glass in left, resting upon background of woven material. On the back of the head is engraved 'June ye 6th 1690'. Currently on display in Gallery 6.
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Another gold memorial ring with similar design. Note the initials in gold wire. Currently on display in Gallery 15.

In the mid 18th century a lighter rococo style became fashionable, reflecting changing attitudes towards death and a greater focus on sentiment and emotion in mourning practice. Many pieces included pearls to represent tears:

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A gold mourning ring with an oval bezel surrounded by small pearls, containing under a piece of glass the plaited hair of the deceased. 1750-1800. Currently on display in Gallery 6.

The 19th century was the era when formal mourning customs reached their height, particularly in the 1850s-1860s when many were in mourning due to losses of the Crimean war (1854-56) and Indian mutiny (1858). The death of Prince Albert in 1861 sent the whole court went into full mourning, and Queen Victoria herself into a period of extravagant mourning from which she never fully recovered. Birmingham is famous for it's jewellery quarter and many pieces of mourning jewellery were made in the city, especially during the 19th century when the adaptability of the trade allowed pieces to be created using gold with enamel, and also jet, french jet (black glass) bog oak and gutta percha (vulcanised rubber designed to imitate jet) for a variety of markets. As well the displays at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery there are also displays which include 19th century mourning jewellery at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Thinktank.

Gold memorial ring by George Horton Birmingham 1825. On loan from Birmingham Assay Office. Currently on display at Thinktank Science Museum, in the ‘We Made It’ exhibition.

Hair jewellery was also popular in the 19th century, both for mourning and other sentimental purposes (how romantic!). However many mistrusted the idea of sending the hair of their deceased loved ones away to be made into jewellery- fearing the hair which they got back would not be the right hair! Therefore there was a great vogue for making hair jewellery at home. Because hair was extremely light and strong, large pieces of jewellery could be fashioned from it, including necklaces, watch chains, earrings and bracelets like these:

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A hairwork bracelet, with an expanding hollow tube of woven brown hair fitted into a hexagonal gilt metal section decorated with machine engraving from which hangs a pendant heart chased with scrolling foliage on the front. Bracelet dates to 1845. Currently on display in Gallery 6.
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Bracelet containing three open work bands of plaited hair with two tassels and chased gold mount. 1830-1850. Currently on display in Gallery 6.

There are more pieces of mourning jewellery in storage at the Museum Collections Centre, where I am doing my cultural internship placement. Here's a sneak peak at one of them! Isn’t it stunning?

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A gold enamel mourning ring with an octagonal bezel containing under a piece of glass a circular painted medallion with a figure of Hope encouraging a woman weeping before an urn. 1775 – 1800. This ring is currently at the Museum Collection Centre.

Hopefully there will be chances to display this ring and some of the other pieces in the future!