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Memento Mori Jewelry: Remember You Must Die

This week's blog is about as spooky as it gets in the antique jewelry world. Skulls, coffins, urns... memento mori jewelry is the jewelry of death and mortality. Popular since the 16th century, memento mori jewelry comes from a Christian tradition of using death as a reminder to be virtuous in life.

The phrase 'memento mori' in Latin literally means 'remember you must die.' Although this seems like a pretty harsh reality to be wearing around your neck or on your finger, the historical ubiquity of this kind of jewelry is undeniable. Skulls in particular abounded as symbols of the memento mori philosophy. Much of memento mori jewelry is also engraved or enameled with words, messages and biblical indications to double down on the meaning of the piece.

In 16th century Europe, the contemplation of mortality and impending death was often considered and examined as a theme in art and literature. Just think of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull in his famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy. Vanitas paintings were also having a moment, as still life pieces that depicted skulls, rotting fruit, melting candles and clocks as symbols of the transience of life.

A memento mori in painted form: Vanitas, 1671, by Philippe de Champaigne. The flower, the skull and the hourglass are each reminders of the inevitability of time passing and death to come.

Memento mori jewelry, in the 17th and 18th centuries in particular, gave way to mourning jewelry, which were pieces to honor passed away relatives or loved ones. However, some jewelry remains that was a fusion of the two genres. Pieces may have beheld the initials of a mourned relation, whilst bearing the phrase 'memento mori' as a reminder to do right by the dead person by living piously whilst possible.

This had explicitly religious significance in many cases. Wearing skulls and coffins was a reminder to Christians that alongside inevitable death comes the judgment day. Therefore, the memento mori were not just reminders of the fleeting nature of life, but also of the eternal nature of death. Live virtuously now, and go to heaven, rather than burn eternally in hell, essentially.

Gold, enameled, and jeweled memento mori ring, 1525-1575. The bezel is in the form of a closed book, and the shoulders feature figure groups representing the Fall from Grace and Expulsion from Eden. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Enamelled gold ring, the bezel in the form of a skull and cross-bones in a border of rubies, 1550-75. Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Enamelled gold ring, 1550-1600. The inscription on this ring reads: 'Nosse te psum', a variation on 'Nosce te ipsum' or 'know yourself', which was a popular motto on memento mori jewelry. The inscription 'Dye to lyve' refers to the need to give up earthly life in favor of eternal life in Heaven.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Enamelled gold wedding memento mori ring, 1550-1600. The bezel of the ring is enameled in white with a death's head surrounded by the inscription 'BE HOLD THE ENDE'. The second inscription, 'RATHER DEATH THAN FALS FAYTH', runs around the edge. On the reverse of the bezel are the initials 'ML' connected by a true lover's knot. Though it may seem strange to have a memento mori on a wedding ring, this was a way of echoing the vow 'until death do us apart.'

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

16th-century French memento mori gold pendant. The pendant takes the form of a skeleton underneath a hinged rock-crystal coffin lid. The back of the necklace is enameled with tongues of fire. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Engraved gold and enamel ring, c. 1600. The mark on the other side of the bezel is a merchant's mark, used by a trader to mark his goods and adopted as a signet by those not entitled to a coat of arms. Find out more about maker's marks, hallmarks or signets in our previous blogs.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Early 17th-century memento mori ring in gold. The top bezel features diamonds arranged into a flower shape, likely representing life, whilst the hinged lid can be lifted to reveal the memento mori skull.

Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Emblems Of Mortality Ring - 1740 from the collection of AAJ.

17th-century skull memento mori, inscription reading 'FOELIX CONCORDIA FRATRVM' meaning 'a happy concord of brothers.' Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gold signet ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a skull and inscribed IB (sic) MEMENTO. MORI, 1600-1700.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Enamelled gold ring, the bezel in the form of a skull and cross-bones, with rose-cut diamonds set on the shoulders, 1600-1700.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Memento Mori ring, c. 1620-1650. Rijksmuseum. The words in the open book that adorn this gold ring read (in Dutch) “’t Leven is mijn Christi, Sterven is mijn Gewin” (For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain). Along with the skull, hourglass, and angel, these words reminded the ring’s wearer of the transience of earthly life. Inscribed on the inside is: “ons leven is een schadú op aerde” (our life on earth is a shadow). Via Pulter Project.

In the piece from c.1600, there is an early representation of the skull in an Elizabethan design. This is the nexus between the change of the symbols being decidedly mourning and previously for the statement of living. Via Art of Mourning.

On this slide, there is a skull on a winged hourglass and two cherubs on a coffin - against a background panel of woven hair. The inscription reads 'MEM. MORI.' The slide was a very popular type of jewel at this date. Fitted with two flat loops at the back, a ribbon of silk or woven hair would be threaded through enabling it to be worn around the neck or wrist. Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

This piece from the 17th century shows the use of black along with the Baroque elements as the skull/crossbones motif. Enamel itself was a popular technique that carried over from Elizabethan times and developed with the more elaborate designs of the Baroque. Via Art of Mourning.

Another memento mori slide, 1700. A skeleton lies on a coffin inscribed 'I rest' while two angels hold the deceased's initials - MT - in gold wire aloft. The background is a panel of woven hair, while the decorative elements were produced as standard components in stamped and enameled gold.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

A gold memento mori ring featuring a skeleton, cross-bones, and wings along the outer hoop. 1714. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This ring is both a mourning ring and a memento mori, 1719. The hoop of the ring is decorated with a skeleton and crossbones, traditional signifiers of mortality, along with the inscription 'Memento mori' or 'Remember death'. The inscription inside the hoop tells us that it was made for S. Spiller, who died in 1719, aged 39. These rings were made for friends and family and sometimes distributed at the funeral.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

1722 gold ring with coffin-shaped bezel and letters beneath in gold thread, surmounted by a skull. The inscription on the hoop reads 'MEMENTO MORI.'

Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gold mourning ring with scroll shoulders in white enamel. The hexagonal bezel crystal reveals death's head beneath it, 1739. Around the hoop reads the inscription 'MEMENTO MORI.'

Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Silver coffin-shaped pendant 1750-1800. As this locket commemorates a specific person's death, it falls more into the category of mourning jewelry than memento mori, however, it likely evolved from the earlier memento mori designs.

Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heart crystal pendant with skull, cherubs, and threaded initials. Via Art of Mourning.

This memento mori and mourning ring memorializes the death of Sir Evelyn Pierrepont, the second Duke of Kingston. The inscription reads H.G. the D. of Kingston ob.23.Sep.1773.

Via Blood Milk.

Created sometime in the late 1700s, what makes this ring special is the ship, which collectors say is uncommon among these types of items, which usually feature urns or willows. The ship's presence on a ring like this represents the journey into the afterlife, while the beached anchor symbolizes hope for those the loved one left behind. And if you look closer you can see that the golden details on the ship were created out of tiny bits of hair. The deceased's hair was chopped up and used to paint with, and oftentimes incorporated into the piece of jewelry itself. Via Erie Basin.

From the Art of Mourning: "I think the symbolism speaks largely for itself, the willow is sadness, the tomb/plinth shows the mortuary, skull and crossbones is death, the tempus fugit shows that time flies, cypress points towards the heavens and the white enamel is for the unmarried/virginal Anne Staneway." 1780 enamel, crystal and, sepia ring.

To find out more about memento mori jewelry, AAJ also recommends this recent podcast episode on The Mothball Prophecies featuring Hayden Peters AKA Art of Mourning. You can follow Hayden's Instagram, @artofmourning, to see more memento mori jewelry.

To wrap up, here some of AAJ's own memento mori pieces below:

For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.