Mourning dress was expressed in the 17th and 18th centuries but it wasn’t until the death of Prince Albert in 1861 that it became popular. Queen Victoria proceeded to wear mourning dress and a piece of his hair for the next 40 years and required her court to do the same. This soon filtered down to all the classes as an expression of dignity, respect and momento mori. There were different stages and lengths of morning depending on your relationship to the deceased. Mourning dress had become a fashionable practice and women were quite interested in wearing attractive dress and jewelry.
It was inappropriate to wear accessories during the early periods of mourning, but in later stages, jewelry items made from the hair of the deceased loved one became popular. In some cases, the hair was preserved under a clear covering; in other instances, the jewelry itself was woven from hair. Hairworking patterns for weaving and knotting were available if a woman wanted to create her own jewelry, or she could hire professional hairworkers to craft it for her. Some hair jewelry incorporated gold or diamonds for later stages of mourning, or took the form of a locket containing hair and a photograph of the deceased. This kind of jewelry also often featured black enamel detailing or pearls, which represented tears. The mineraloid jet was popular in morning jewelry because it had the look of black glass; glass was used later as a substitute for jet, along with onyx. At one time, jet was the only material the mourning woman was allowed to wear.
Hair jewelry functioned as a keepsake of the dead and as memento mori, since the wearer was constantly reminded to lead a good life because death was an ever-present possibility and could strike without any warning. It was common that more hair would be added to the jewelry when additional friends or relatives passed away.
The jewelry fashion of memento mori soon dissolved after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Though it’s no longer a primary custom, the jewelry of this era tells a story unlike any other. Visit our Leo Hamel San Diego showroom to view antique pieces from this time period and more.