In the Victorian era, death by war, illness, or childbirth was common, and around a third of Victorian children died before the age of 10. Rich or poor, man or woman, old or young - death touched every life. In an era marked by sentimentality, the popularity of mourning jewelry soared. Queen Victoria herself is responsible for much of its popularity, entering as she did into an extended period of mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, after his death in 1861. Always at the center of Victorian fashion, Queen Victoria's mourning jewelry inspired many new trends.
A gold and black-enameled mourning ring in the form of a snake, with diamond sparks for eyes. Under, a locket fitting with plaited hair. This ring commemorates the scandalous George Edward 7th Earl of Waldegrave, who died on the 28th September 1846, aged 30. He eloped to Gretna Green just past the Scottish border to marry Frances, the widow of his elder, illegitimate brother. The marriage would have been illegal in England, being within the forbidden degrees of kinship. He led a wild life, and in 1841 was arrested and briefly imprisoned in Newgate prison for a drunken assault on a policeman.
'In Memory Of' Mourning Bands
Towards the end of the Georgian era and into the early Victorian era, mourning rings moved away from scrolling rococo bands or the thin, gold bands on the backs of many neoclassical rings, instead favoring thick, black-enameled bands with gothic lettering. The outside of the hoop was often inscribed with 'In Memory Of', while the inside bore a dedicated commemoration.
'In Memory Of' buckle mourning ring in 18-carat gold and black enamel, with gothic script and fully hallmarked for London 18 carat 1840. Maker WK. Antique Animal Jewelry
An early Victorian 18ct yellow gold and black enamel memorial ring. The band inscribed 'In Memory Of' between two black enamel bands on the outside, and 'Marianne Warde who departed this life Jan. 5th 1844', on the inside. - From Argentum Antiques & Collectables via Selling Antiques
A Victorian memorial/mourning ring with a central locket compartment containing plaited hair. Inscribed 'In Memory Of', the black enamel worked into the scrolling carved 18ct gold mount. Inscribed on the inside, 'W Noton', c.1857 and made by 'E.D.W' (Edward Dunwoody Wilmot), Birmingham. - From Fetheray
Victorian 'In Memory Of' mourning rings. - From @moonscuriousitems via Instagram
Two 'In Memory Of' Victorian mourning rings in black enamel - Via The Art of Mourning
Due to the color black being associated with death and mourning, materials like jet, onyx, ebonite, and black glass were popular in Victorian mourning jewelry.
Victorian 14k gold mourning ring with jet, engraved 'In Memory of my Pa'. - From MindiLynJewelry
The Etiquette of Mourning
In Victorian society, there was a very specific etiquette surrounding mourning that dictated how long one should mourn for, and what one should wear. Widows were expected to mourn publicly for 2-3 years, whereas grieving a child or parents lasted 1 year, grandparents and siblings 6 months, aunts and uncles a few months, with the length decreasing as the relationship grew more distant. There were 3 distinct periods of mourning, these were: Deepest Mourning, Ordinary Mourning, and Half-Mourning.
'Deepest Mourning' was the time immediately following death. For a widow, this stage would last a year and a day and the widow would wear plain, all-black clothes, a veil that was not to be removed in public, and no jewelry. Later in the Victorian era, wearing some jewelry during this period was permitted, but only black pieces with matte, non-reflective finishes, also known as 'dead black'. It was felt that one should avoid reflections during this period, as they were considered to be portals into the soul.
A rare Victorian jet mourning ring. - From @thejewelcoven via Instagram
The second period of mourning was known as the 'ordinary' stage, which allowed for a more extravagant selection of black fabrics such as velvet, silk, lace, and ribbons. Jewelry during this period was expected to follow a strict black and white rule, making pearls (representing both the purity of the dead and the tears of those left behind) a popular choice, as well as black and white enamel.
Some of the most common motifs in Victorian mourning rings include the snake (symbolizing eternal love/death/soul), teardrops (symbolized by pearls), lily-of-the-valley flowers (symbolizing the reuniting of loved ones who’ve departed). and forget-me-nots (for remembrance).
Gold mourning ring with fluted hoop, chased and enameled with a floral pattern. Set with an oblong bezel enameled in black and decorated with a rectangular panel of seed pearls around a glass window holding a panel of plaited hair, c.1800-50. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Early Victorian enamel, pearl cluster, and gold mourning ring set with 6 pearls and a diamond in the center in the shape of a forget-me-not. The ring is inscribed 'Mary Wilkinson died 1st of June 1842'. It no longer has its locket back, but it still has the original plaited hair protected with a varnish finish, on the underside of the forget-me-not. - Via 1stdibs
Victorian 18k yellow gold seed pearl mourning ring. It would have had hair lining the inside of the ring. The inside of the ring is engraved for 'Mary' who died 'Nov 25th 1856' at '51 Years', c.1856.
Victorian black enamel and seed pearl mourning ring with a lock of hair in a halo of pearls, c.1853.
A Victorian mourning ring with a seed-pearl forget-me-not flower on a black-enamel bezel and a locket of hair to the reverse, the inside engraved, 'Peter Thompson born 25th June 1795 died 6th May 1865'. c.1870.
A Victorian mourning ring with a 15k yellow gold engraved band with black enamel highlights, the center with an oval face set with a carved black agate, carved to resemble a forget me not flower. The agate is surrounded by a halo of tiny seed pearls and to the reverse, there is a glazed locket compartment containing a lock of light brown woven hair, c.1881. - Via 1stdibs
A late-Victorian mourning ring modeled in 9ct yellow gold with a black enamel face and shoulders and a Forget-me-not in the center with pearl-studded petals, symbolizing remembrance. A hidden locket can also be found concealed behind the face and contains the hair of a loved one. The inside of the shank is inscribed 'T.W. – Aug. 11. 1882' and on the outside of the shank 'T.W. – Dec. 13. 1890.'
A Victorian mourning ring crafted in 18k gold with pearl and black enamel accents. The hinged locket ring face opens to reveal an empty compartment. 'In Memory Of' in lettered in black enamel around the band, and the reverse of the ring face is inscribed, 'Queenie, died Dec. 4 / 03, Aged 7'. The ring was made c.1878 but wasn't inscribed and worn as mourning jewelry until 1903. - From Heart of Hearts Jewels
A Victorian mourning ring containing a central onyx hardstone with a carved forget-me-not flower. The onyx is claw set and surrounded by an oval border with small gold balls and four pearls. It has engraved shoulders and a thick, engraved band with decorative cutouts showing plaited brown hair running around the band. c.1891. Engraved ‘Our Mother’. - From Navette via Ruby Lane
14k yellow gold Victorian pearl mourning ring. The gray and white natural pearls are set in an elongated beaded channel which is accented with a Greek key design in black enamel. From @park_place_antique_jewelry_nj via Instagram
Mid-19th century Victorian mourning ring with pearls, black enamel, and a central carving likely from onyx hardstone. - From @karendeakin.antiques via Instagram
Black enamel Scottish mourning band in 18-carat gold with a beautiful foliate gold design around the band. Engraved, 'Eliz Drummond of Logie Almond ob 5th July 1842 aet 80'. - Antique Animal Jewelry
The third period of mourning was known as the 'half-mourning' period, usually encompassing the final six months or so of mourning. Queen Victoria, however, stayed in this period of half-mourning and social retirement for much of the rest of her life. This period allowed gentlemen to begin exchanging black buttons for silver ones, and women to reduce the amount of black they wore. Diamonds, gold, and silver were allowed in jewelry, as well as amethysts, turquoise, or other gemstones, as long as they were used tastefully and in moderation.
This gold mourning ring, enameled in black, was made to commemorate Hannah Darby who died in 1860, aged 77. The letters AEI inscribed in diamond sparks are from the Greek word for 'Always'. This was a popular inscription; the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning owned a ring with the same motto, which her husband Robert Browning wore on his watch-chain after her untimely death.
A Victorian mourning ring, c.1875, inscribed 'IMO Geo Wills died 25th April 1875 from M. McC.' The ring appears to have been a gift, perhaps to his wife? It is crafted in 18ct yellow gold, carved and laid with black enamel and a central panel scribed with a Pansy set with tiny rose-cut Diamonds symbolizing remembrance (from the French Pensee - 'thoughts'/'think of me'). - From @fetheray.jewels via Instagram
Mid-19th century mourning ring in the shape of a forget-me-not or pansy flower (symbolizing remembrance) centered with a diamond in a star setting. The sides have a graceful leaf motif. The inside is inscribed, 'T. Brucel 18 October 1854'. - From @thesacredorder via Instagram
Victorian mourning ring in 15ct gold. The front of the ring is decorated in black enamel with a leaf design set with rose-cut diamonds. There is a compartment to the back for hair. c.1870s
From Plaza Jewellery
A Victorian mourning ring, c.1884, crafted from 18k gold inlaid with bands of black enamel and inset with natural pearls and two old mine-cut diamonds - a Grecian color theme. There is an empty compartment to the ring face reverse, suggesting its use as a mourning ring. - From Heart of Hearts Jewels
A gold memorial ring decorated with black enamel and an emerald. The crown and initials WR indicate that it was made for William IV, who reigned from 1830-1837 (he was the 3rd son of George III and succeeded his older brother George IV to the throne). He was succeeded by his niece, Victoria. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Victorian mourning ring with a banded agate cabochon in a setting of 18k yellow gold, black enamel inlay, set with old mine-cut diamonds. Inscribed, 'William Jope Obt May 1, 1854 aet 65'. - From Heart of Hearts Jewels
A Victorian garnet mourning ring made of 18kt yellow gold. The garnet is bezel-set and accented with a swirling black enamel design covering the mounting. The inside of the ring is inscribed, 'James Alan Harrison 24th Nov. 1855, 49 yrs', c.1880. - From A. Brandt + Son
This period of mourning also seems to have allowed for other colors of enamel to be used in mourning jewelry, including royal blue, which often was used to suggest that the deceased was 'like royalty' to those mourning them.
Unusual Victorian mourning ring with a pearl-set star central motif, set into blue guilloche enamel, with sprung joints so it expands to fit. The inscription inside reads ‘Mary H St John died October 31 1851 aged 76 years’. - Antique Animal Jewelry
Late Victorian 18 carat gold band with an enameled ‘forget me not’ motif. Antique Animal Jewelry
Hairwork was a particular specialty of Victorian mourning jewelry. Queen Victoria is said to have carried a lock of Albert’s hair with her almost constantly after his death, giving the significance of hair in mourning even more weight at the time. Between 1870 and 1900, the hairwork band was an extremely popular style in mourning rings, but also in fashion generally.
Victorian 14 carat yellow gold mourning ring, c.1840's. The central woven hair panel is bordered by a plain black enamel decoration within a three-dimensional floriated frame. The shank of the ring is embellished with black enamel decoration, with the phrase "IN MEMORY OF" visible in gold. Inside the band ins inscribed, 'Robt. Curry Obt 18th Oct 1820 Oct 45'. - From AC Silver
Early Victorian buckle ring, c.1840s. The buckle is paired with an articulated heart drop with a turquoise forget-me-not motif. Crafted in 15 karat gold featuring chased detailing. Finely woven hair is set within the band. - From Butter Lane Antiques
A Victorian mourning ring commissioned by a mother for the five children she outlived. Fashioned in 18k gold, the ring features a hair locket and three enamel forget me not panels that divide the channel of the hoop into four sections, each of which is inlaid with the hair of a unique individual. The interior is engraved: 'In memory of my dear children Walter Janet Jane Jessie Robert.', c.1860. From Erica Weiner
Victorian mourning ring crafted in 18kt gold, with a signet-style plaque at the center which forms a seal with the raised image of overlapping letters. Covering the surface of the shank is an exposed band of finely woven hair, framed by textured repousse bands of gold on either side. A full commemorative inscription inside reads: 'M.H.C. Mourant, Died 6th 1866.' - From A. Brandt + Son
Antique Victorian gold and enamel mourning ring with a hidden hair locket and a 'B' monogram, c.1870. - From Ruby Lane via Pinterest
Victorian mourning ring of 18kt gold with black and white enameled accents on the shoulders of the ring, and a shield-shaped seal at the center. Multiple cut-out 'windows' along the shank expose a band of finely woven hair. Completing the design are finely-etched details that carry around the entire exterior of the setting. A full commemorative inscription inside reads: 'M.A. Vincent, née Mourant, died 2nd Jan. 1879.' From A. Brandt + Son
Victorian 9ct gold plaited hair mourning ring, c.1880. With panels and monogrammed cartouche to the center. - From Landseer Lake Antiques via Ebay
A hinged Victorian mourning ring, made in Birmingham c.1881. The inside of the band is engraved 'In Memory of Brother Harry, died 19.10.92 aged 23'. The braided hair and engraving were added in 1892 when the ring was purchased. - From Erica Weiner via Instagram
Victorian buckle mourning ring, c.1887, the buckle - strong, sturdy, and never-ending - representing eternity in Victorian symbolism. Crafted from 18 karat gold, this buckle memorial ring opens, revealing intricately woven hair. - From Victoria Sterling via Etsy
A pearl hairwork band set with a single 'tear' (pearl), the band displaying the hairwork through oval holes, the surrounding acanthus design reflecting Rococo Revival style, c.1890. - Via The Art of Mourning, Courtesy: Sarah Nehama
Engraved, 'Baby Constance Sept 30th 1894'. A mourning ring with windows in the band revealing braided hair, and a central initialed black enamel crown with a row of seed pearls forming a halo. From @elibouge via Instagram
Late Victorian mourning ring modeled in 15ct yellow gold with a finely plaited band of brown hair running through the band. To the front, there is a geometric panel set with seed pearls and a single diamond, decorated in black enamel. Inscribed on the inner band, 'Mother, died Feb 21st 1895.'
Via Stolen Attic
Miniature Memorial Photographs/Portraits
This may sound gruesome but, as photographs became increasingly popular across the western world throughout the Victorian era, the Victorians often practiced what is called 'Post-mortem photography', taking photos of deceased loved ones (yes, after-death). Not all photographs used in Victorian mourning jewelry are post-mortem, but photographs generally did become very popular in mourning jewelry, offering an everlasting and accurate image of the deceased to hold dear.
A memorial/mourning ring made for Queen Victoria in gold and black enamel. The bezel contains a microphotograph, reversed, of Prince Albert (1819-61) in 1861, which is attributed to J.J.E. Mayall. The cipher linking the initials 'V' and 'A' in white enamel is set into the shanks on either side of the bezel.