Mourning jewellery in 19th century Europe

Cross-shaped jet brooch, decorated with heart and anchor

In Europe the colour black has been associated with rituals of death since the mediaeval period. Not only clothing but also jewellery followed mourning regulations which were often hierarchical and sumptuary.

In the 17th century pearls and diamonds in particular were worn during mourning. Contemporary portraits show aristocratic widows wearing such drop pearl earrings, and references to mourning diamonds can be found in estate inventories for example. It needs no saying that such sumptuous mourning jewellery was reserved for the upper classes. Especially produced mourning garments and accessories remained an exclusive domain for the richer parts of society until far in the 19th century.

Mourning jewellery also followed fashion. And sometimes it became part of a fashion whim. According to the French magazine Journal des Dames et des Modes dating from November 1809 it was most fashionable to wear mourning jewellery made out of steel even when one was not in mourning. It was probably not the first nor the last time that jewels initially meant for mourning were being worn on other occassions.

In the 19th century apart from the exclusive diamonds and pearls on the one hand and the cheap steel on the other different other raw materials were being used such as oxidised silver, bog oak, blackened tortoiseshell, ivory, gunmetal and especially jet which was mined in Whitby, Great-Britain. This mineral became immensely popular in the 3rd quarter of that century. After being carved jet was given either a dull or a polished finish. Imitation jet was formed from castin resin or made from black glass that was often faceted or moulded.

One can imagine that such lustrous black jewellery was not only worn during periods of mourning but also on other solemn or festive occasions. And this leaves us today often – when being confronted with black jewellery – with the question if that particular piece had been worn for mourning indeed, knowing that it was certainly not unusual to wear fashionable black. Sometimes Christian mourning symbolism was embedded in these jewels what makes interpretation somewhat easier. Apart from floral codes with twining ivy for fidelity and forget-me-nots for remembrance there were more abstract designs with a heart for constancy and an anchor for the end of life.

Jewellery is often being associated with turning points in human life such as a wedding engagement, marriage, birth and also death and mourning, and in doing so it defines the social status of its bearer.