• Antique Animal Jewelry

Georgian & Victorian Life Expectancy: A Story Told Through Mourning Jewels

If you've read our previous blogs on Georgian & Victorian mourning jewelry you will know that most people who lived during that time were touched by death in one way or another. With the dangers of childbirth, high infant mortality rates, and diseases going around, few were those who had not lost someone. That is not to say, however, that everyone died young; nip'd in the bud, or struck down in their prime. This much, at least, is evident through the lens of mourning jewelry of the time.

A black enamel and 18-22 carat gold mourning band with swirling rococo banners for Elizabeth Inman who died aged 96 in 1768. The inscription reads ‘Eliz Inman Ob 13 Feb 1768 Et 96’ Antique Animal Jewelry

Life Expectancy in the 18th & 19th Centuries

Around the 18th century in Britain, life expectancy improved, rising from around 35 in the Middle Ages to around 40, probably at least in part due to the plague dying out, more nutrition in diets, and improvements in agriculture. It rose again in the 19th century to around 47-50. There is a misconception, however, that this means that most people living at this time were likely to die by the time they reached the age of 40 or 50. This is not the case. The way life expectancy is calculated takes into account infant mortality and death in childbirth, which actually skews the figures quite significantly. The mourning jewels below illustrate just how prevalent childhood deaths were at the time.

A devastating, beautiful gold band enameled in black with a narrow white enamel border at the top and bottom. The outside of the hoop is inscribed: "MB Agd 16, SB Agd 12, WB Agd 10, EB Agd 9, TB Agd 7, RB Agd 5, CB Agd 2", with the initials detailing the loss of 7 children. The inside of the hoop is engraved with an inscription in italics: "Died from the 16th to the 23rd Feby. 1801".

©Victoria and Albert Museum

Gold mourning ring decorated with seed pearls. The marquise-shaped bezel with 'SWH' and willow leaves partly worked in hair, over plaited hair. The inscription on the back tells us the ring records the death of two children - Sarah Hetherington, who died aged 7 months on the 7 April 1786, and her brother William who died just a few months later on 31 July 1786. His age is recorded as 8 years, 9 months, showing that every moment of his short life was to be counted.

©Victoria and Albert Museum

This gold mourning ring enameled in white, the band shaped like small bones, commemorates the death of a baby. The ring is set with rose-cut diamonds and is inscribed 'Matthew Arnold died 10 May 1742 aged 8 months'. England, c.1742. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

White enameled gold mourning ring, the hexagonal bezel set with a crystal enclosing a skull. The hoop of five scrolls, inscribed "Eliz; Hors.Man OB; 7 June 1740 AE:3", for a child who died aged 3.

©Victoria and Albert Museum

Since infant mortality in Britain nowadays is pretty low, our life expectancy figure is much closer to giving a rough estimate of how long we might expect to live, but that's a lot less true for figures from the 18th and 19th centuries. What that means is that although a lot of people were dying in childhood, if you made it past childhood you actually had a pretty decent chance of living to the age of 60, 70, or longer. These mourning jewels are only a few examples of many demonstrating that fact.

Gold mourning ring enameled in black and white. The convex oval bezel is set with a miniature of a woman seated by an urn on a pedestal inscribed 'IH'. For Isaac Hitchin who died on 14 January 1766, aged 71. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Interlocking double mourning ring commemorating a husband and wife or close family members, and the unbreakable bond they shared. For Samuel Warren who died on 20 Dec 1762 aged 79, and Ann Warren who died 14 years later on 15 Aug aged 72. - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold mourning ring enameled in black. The Marquise bezel with a miniature of an urn on a pedestal on ivory or bone under glass or a rock crystal panel. The hoop is inscribed for Frances Crabtree who died on 27 September 1783 at the age of 72. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold mourning hoop with broad shoulders decorated with gold foliage on a black enamel background. The bezel is circular and decorated with a gold and black enamel Greek key design around a circular central panel, possibly formed of a glass cover over plaited hair. The inside of the hoop is engraved, "J. Osmotherly Oct 13 1871 age 72". - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These mourning rings are a pair, possibly for a couple with the initials CS and IS who died aged 70 and 72. The diamond and colored paste set flowers depicted drooping in a vase symbolize death and mourning. Inscribed on the back of each is, 'Cease thy tears, religion points on high/ CS ob.25 Jan 1787 aet 70/ IS ob. 18 Sep 1792 aet 72'. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (1 | 2)

A Georgian mourning ring with a small rock crystal center and four diamonds, with black enamel detailing and rococo band inscribed ‘Matthew Meakin ob Jan 7, 1740, aet 73’. - Antique Animal Jewelry

Black enamel and 18ct yellow gold mourning band, inscribed, “Richard Knight Arm OB 29 Jan 1765 AE TATIS 73” - Gembank 1973

A high-carat Georgian mourning ring with attractive crosshatched enamel detailing and shoulders, with gold foliate panels around the hair panel and enamel shoulders. The inside with inscription ‘ John Edwards ob 16 March 1819 aet 73’. - Antique Animal Jewelry

Gold mourning ring enameled in black and white. The octagonal bezel with 'MW' in monogram, the border inscribed, "MARY. WHITE./ OB: 10.FEB. 1798: AE:73".

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

White and black enamel and gold mourning ring for the celebrated German-born British Baroque composer George Frederic Handel, who died on 14 April 1759, aged 74. - Sotheby's

18ct gold and enamel mourning ring, inscribed for William Wrightson who died on 26 December 1827, aged 75 - From Art of Mourning, courtesy of Pip Terry

18ct yellow gold black enamel mourning band ring, the paste stone was added later. For Martha Ann Leonard who died on 27 Dec 1847, aged 59’ and Robert Leonard who died on 21 May 1863, aged 75’. - Gembank 1973

Three different mourning rings, all for people who died aged 76 in the 18th & 19th centuries. Left: A white and black enameled mourning band for Sarah Tomlinson who died on 19 June 1806, aged 76. Middle: A mourning ring with a heart-shaped bezel that was once enameled and set with a rose-cut diamond. For Richard Perry who died on 22 April 1754, aged 76. Right: A white enameled mourning ring for Fountayne Wentworth Osbaldeston Esq. who died on 10th June 1770, aged 76. The white band shows that he died unmarried. - All ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold mourning ring with an openwork silver scroll-edged bezel set with rose-cut diamonds and an amethyst in the form of a cross. For Richard Pett who died on the 23 February 1765, aged 76.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A gold and black enamel English mourning ring for Sir William Wentworth, a Baronet who died in 1763, aged 77. - Sarah Nehama.

A Georgian mourning ring, 1809, with three snakes, a central ouroboros in chased gold around a cabochon crystal with black and white enamel border, and coiled snake shoulders. The back is engraved “ T Marsh ob 8 December 1809 aet 77”. - Antique Animal Jewelry

In Search of the Oldest

The featured piece of mourning jewelry from Antique Animal Jewelry demonstrates that there were some people like Elizabeth Inman, born in the 17th century, who lived well into the 18th century and died at the age of 90+. In fact, there are at least 14 officially verified UK centenarians from the 18th century, the oldest of whom - Elizabeth Hanbury - lived to the age of 108, having been born in England on 9 Jun 1793, and having died in England on 31 Oct 1901. That makes her old enough to have lived in three centuries: the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Margaret Ann Neve is another supercentenarian to have achieved this, being the first recorded female supercentenarian and the second validated human to reach the age of 110. Born on 18 May 1792, and having died on 4 April 1903, she spent her life living in Guernsey, England, and Belgium. During her life, she witnessed the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo firsthand and visited Krakow while it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Margaret Ann Harvey Neve National Portrait Gallery

Our interest piqued by this, we thought that there must be some pretty impressive figures featured on 18th & 19th-century mourning jewels, so we went in search of the oldest death we could find recorded in mourning jewelry from that time. Here is a selection of mourning jewels made for those who died at the age of 80+, with the oldest example we found being a tie between two rings for people who died aged 96...

Gold mourning ring enameled in white, set with pearls and rose-cut diamonds, with a blue paste ground and an applied urn, set with diamonds. For William Fauquier Esq. who died 15 December 1788 aged 80.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A navette-shaped ring, inset with a sepia miniature depicting a man leaning on a funerary urn, within a black enamel border inscribed "Andw Honey Ob 18 Feb 1787 Ae 80". - Sotheby's

Black enamel and crystal front mourning band inscribed, "Margaret Woodward ob 25. Oct 1806 Æ 80". - Gembank 1973

Mourning ring with a sepia urn and black enamel shank, inscribed, "margt earquharson ob 16 March 1780 æ 80". - Gembank 1973

A mourning brooch with a silver openwork bow, set with rose and brilliant-cut diamonds and pink sapphires over foil. For Elizabeth Eyton who died aged 81 in 1754.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Black enamel hair locket ring, made for Charles Clay who died 18 February 1812, aged 82. - Gembank 1973

An English gold and black enamel mourning ring with a central amethyst. The rococo scrolled band identifies the deceased as Dr. Abm (Abraham) Sequeira who died 5 August 1747, aged 82. - Sarah Nehama

Gold and onyx mourning locket set with diamond monogram 'JE' and 'EE'. The frames around the hair compartments are inscribed for Jarvis Empson who died on March 28th 1871, aged 78, and Elizabeth Empson who died on July 24th 1867, aged 83. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A black and gold enameled ring inscribed, "Sarah Wright Died 6 Nov 1781, aged 84". - Sotheby's

Unusual 19th-century mourning band in the style of late 18th century enameled bands. Dedicated to Benjamin Brooksbank who died on 21 September 1842, aged 85. - Sarah Nehama

A beautiful high carat gold memento mori skull ring dated 1712. The outer hoop is decorated in black enamel with a central skull motif between acanthus, representing the Heavenly garden, and thistle flowers, symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The interior is inscribed, "Sir Wm Hoskins Ob. 13 Aug 1712 aet 85". Sir William Hoskins was Lord of the Manor of Oxted. - Rowan and Rowan

Gold mourning ring for a couple, enameled in dark blue, white, and light blue. Inscribed in Latin 'Betty Savory died 23 February 1792 aged 70' and 'Henry Savory died 30 December 1798 aged 86'.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A navette-shaped ring, inset with a hair work funerary urn embellished with gold beads and rose diamond detail, within a black enamel border inscribed 'L. Lutwidge Ob7 Sep 1780 Ae 86'. - Sotheby's

Beautiful mourning ring for Jane Sikes who died on 28 October 1832, aged 88 - Rowan and Rowan

A gold mourning ring with a hoop of six scrolls featuring memento mori motifs of a skull, crown, winged hourglass, crossbones, coffin, and a crossed spade and pick. It has a square bezel reeded on the back. For E. Godard who died on 2 June 1755, aged 91. - © The Trustees of the British Museum

A plain gold mourning goop with black enamel. For Ann Abrams who died 17 August 1795, aged 93. Engraved on the inside, "In constanci let us live and die". - © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mourning brooch of Elizabeth Cook, widow of Captain Cook the Circumnavigator, who died on 3 May 1835, aged 93. Tragically, Elizabeth spent 42 of her 93 years in mourning alone, after the deaths of her six children and beloved husband. - © Captain Cook Memorial Museum

An 18th-century gold and enamel mourning ring with a gilt inscription to the top and shaft that reads, 'Han Curnow OB26 Aug 1784 Æ 94', 'Not lost gone before'. - Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers

A mourning ring set with oval, cushion-shaped, and rose diamonds, highlighted with translucent and opaque enamel. For George Lord Headley, who died 9 April 1778, aged 94. - Sotheby's - also featured in Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 and Rings, Jewellery of Power, Love and Loyalty

A gold mourning ring with black enamel borders framing a textured band with relief engraving "In Memory Of". For Mary Benson who died 22 December 1816, aged 96. - Bonhams

The featured image: A black enamel and 18-22 carat gold mourning band with swirling rococo banners for Elizabeth Inman who died aged 96 in 1768. The inscription reads ‘Eliz Inman Ob 13 Feb 1768 Et 96Antique Animal Jewelry

Have you ever seen an 18th or 19th-century piece of mourning jewelry for someone who died at an older age than 96? Let us know!

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