Mourning Jewelry Part I: Georgian Mourning Rings
Death was often on the minds of those living in the 18th and 19th centuries. With difficult childbirths, high infant mortality rates, and diseases rife, it was rare for lives not to have been touched by loss. However, these were lives equally marked by love, sentimentality, and affection, and it is the combination of these things that culminated in mourning jewelry - offering the wearer remembrance, comfort, and consolation throughout their time of grief.
An incredible 18-carat gold and black enamel Georgian mourning ring with a secret panel, c.1828. It's one of a pair with 'In Memory Of' written in gothic gold lettering and a stylized flower at the end with a secret button at the center of the flower that opens a hidden compartment inside the ring, revealing plaited blonde hair. The inscription reads ‘T.W. Died 4 January 1828 Aged 85’ Antique Animal Jewelry
The Roots of Mourning Jewelry
The predecessor to Georgian and Victorian era mourning jewelry was 'Momento Mori' jewelry. 'Memento Mori' literally means 'remember you must die'. It was worn as a reminder to the wearer of the fleeting nature of life and the eternal nature of death, encouraging people to live well and virtuously while they could. Memento Mori jewelry was usually marked with motifs of skeletons, skulls, coffins, or words associated with death.
After the execution of Charles I in 1649, Royalist supporters began wearing and commissioning jewelry in memory of the deceased King, to show their continued support for the Stuart monarchy. Some of these pieces are made of what is known as 'Stuart Crystal', showing the King's initials in gold wire over a background of his hair, all enclosed beneath a carved, faceted rock crystal.
Left: Gold pendant with the royal cipher of Charles I in gold wire possibly mounted over the king's own hair, under glass. At the back, the inscription 'CR REX MARTYR' describes King Charles I as a martyr. Right: Gold commemorative ring for Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. The oval bezel is set with a faceted crystal enclosing plaited hair and CR KR below a crown in gold wire. The foliated hoop formerly covered in black enamel, c.1685-1705 - Both ©Victoria and Albert Museum
This Royalist movement changed the face of mourning jewelry forever. Gone was the generalized and universal death that Memento Mori jewelry offered, and born was a kind of jewelry that commemorated a specific person - embued with sentiment and meaning. This was the beginning of mourning jewelry. Early pieces took much inspiration from Stuart Crystals and memento mori motifs, pairing these with the initials of their deceased loved ones and sentimental locks of the person's hair, placing a lasting part of the deceased into the heart of the jewelry.
Memento Mori style enameled gold mourning ring commemorating the death of Samuel Nicholets of Hertfordshire, who died on 7th July 1661. A lock of hair curls around the ring, visible through the openwork of the enameled decoration of skulls and coats of arms, 1661.
A mourning ring for James I, the gold ring set with an alternating ruby and diamond border around a central crystal covering a crowned IR monogram in gilt wire and hair. Early 18th-century.
Three gold morning rings with monograms in gold thread inside a looped border under faceted rock crystal. All English, c.1690-1740 - © The Trustees of the British Museum. Left: With scrolls on each shoulder, set with two diamonds, and enameled black. Middle: Ornamented on the sides by flutings filled with black enamel with white dots. Right: Each shoulder chased with a leaf, the sides of bezel ornamented by flutings filled with black enamel and white dots.
Stuart Crystal ring with three little ciphers, 'BHE', beneath a table cut crystal. The tapered shoulders are set with diamonds in silver, c.1725. The merging of the shoulders directly into the ribbed rays on the back of the bezel here help to date the piece as early Georgian - Antique Animal Jewelry
A gold mourning ring, the oval bezel containing a monogram in gold thread with letters under crystal, the hoop is decorated in black enamel with memento mori imagery: an hour-glass, spade and pick crossed, cross-bones, and a skeleton. AR obt 1 Augt 1714. England, c.1714. - © The Trustees of the British Museum
Three mourning rings with coffin-shaped rock crystal bezels over enameled skeletons. Left: This skeleton holds an arrow and hourglass, upon a background of hair. For 'WC.RC.', died 'IVLY.8.1715'. Middle: For I Howkar born 9 Feb 1657, died 10 June 1722. Right: For R. Wenborn, died 4 Dev 1724, aged 24. The white enamel suggests they were unmarried. All c.1715-1724 - © The Trustees of the British Museum
It became quite popular to leave in your will some money to have mourning rings made, which would then be distributed to friends and family. The well-known diarist, Samuel Pepys, gifted 123 rings upon his death in 1703, which he divided up into 3 classes according to closeness of friendship and social status.
Crystals to Bands
In 1742, a series of poems called Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality by Edward Young was published. It was incredibly popular, and maybe at least partly responsible for the peak in mourning jewelry's popularity at this time.
Towards the middle of the 18th-century, the crystal bezels of mourning rings were shrinking in size and the bands became a much more important part of the ring. By the 1740s, the Rococo style had begun to flourish in English design. Scroll and ribbon motifs were appearing on bands with inscriptions enamel-inlaid to the outer shank, alongside ring heads with ribbed rays. White rather than black enamel was often, though not universally, used for the deaths of children, spinsters, or bachelors (i.e. 'pure' virgins).
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
Three mourning rings from 1739-1742, all with rococo-style scrolling bands and small, faceted rock crystal bezels. Left: There may be hair under the crystal of this ring commemorating Catherine(?) Taylor, who died on 24 Jan 1742 at the age of 17. The white enamel suggests she was unmarried. Middle: With a coffin-shaped bezel containing a skeleton, commemorating Robert Heard who died 5 June 1743, aged 30. Right: The hexagonal bezel holds a skull on a hair background, the ring commemorating Elizabeth Price who died 29 Mar 1739, aged 49. - All © The Trustees of the British 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
A mourning ring with memento mori 'emblems of mortality' on a scrolled Rococo band. The enameled scrolls read: 'Mary Mount Ob 26 June 1745 aet 59', and the front scrolls are decorated with a skull, crossbones, and a gravedigger's pick and shovel. - From Rowan and Rowan via Pinterest
An unusual double mourning ring commemorating husband and wife, Zephaniah and Hannah Leonard, who died on the same day, April 23rd, 1766. With scrolled enameled sections and coffin-shaped rock crystal quartzes underneath which lie paper skeletons.
These kinds of interlocking double mourning rings are especially laced with sentiment, usually commemorating a husband and wife, or occasionally close family members, and the unbreakable bond they shared. Left: A mourning ring for Samuel Warren who died on 20 Dec 1762 aged 79, and Ann Warren who died 14 years later on 15 Aug aged 72. Right: A black and white enamel mourning ring for Sarah Webb who died on 11 Dec 1764 aged 44, and Robert Webb who died 8 years later on 19 Nov 1772 aged 55.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
White enamel rococo memorial band, c.1762, for someone who died aged 56
Later, towards the end of the Georgian era and into the Victorian era, mourning bands moved away from slimmer bands of scrolls and ribbons, becoming thicker and more gothic in style.
A gold and black enameled mourning ring in memory of Edward, Lord Thurlow. The rectangular bezel depicts a baron's coronet above the monogram T., enameled in gold on black, and set with a brilliant-cut diamond rim. - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
Late Georgian mourning band, with gold gothic lettering ‘In memory of’ and lovely scalloped gold detailing, the inside stamped with the maker BC&N - and with the inscription ‘Mary Dannington Ob 5 August 1829 ae 64’. - Antique Animal Jewelry
Left: Enameled gold Georgian mourning ring, inscribed 'John Fuller OB 7 Dec 1819 ET 67'. Right: 18ct gold mourning ring with 'In Memory Of' in gothic font around the band, within a ribbed central brocade edged by a floral brocade which is in turn flanked by a twisted row, bordered by black enamel with a double rim. Inside, the dedication reads: 'Mrs Ann Jacoby ob 10 Nov 1828 aet 68'.
Both from Fetheray
Neoclassical Mourning Rings
In the later 18th-century in Britain, there was a clear shift in style towards neoclassicism, led by George III and later compounded by Napoleon Bonaparte's influence - not to mention the public excitement stirred up by the archeological excavations underway at Herculaneum and Pompeii. This shift can be seen clearly in the changes in mourning jewelry from simple bands occasionally set with small crystal or gem bezels to pieces with large bezels depicting full scenes featuring images like urns, broken pillars, classical figures, and weeping willows.
A collection of Georgian urn-themed mourning rings, the top ring being a swivel ring, the other side set with an amethyst within a border of pearls. When worn this way, the mourning side is hidden, pressed against the wearer's skin, known only to them. - From @maggie_made via Instagram
This mourning ring was made to remember John and Elizabeth (Eliza) Davys who died in 1783 and 1784 aged 70 and 55 respectively. They were probably a married couple. The center of the bezel holds a bone or ivory panel decorated with an enameled funerary urn on a pedestal underneath a weeping willow made up of their hair. The foreground of the image is also made up of chopped hair. The border is made from gold beading and a band of blue enamel with small gold dots. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Late 18th-century Georgian mourning ring with a rare miniature of a ship and anchor, with hair and sepia decoration. In relation to mourning, ships are generally a symbol for passage into the afterlife. The anchor acts as a symbol of hope for those left behind. - From Diamonds in the Library via Pinterest
A mourning ring for Charles Manners, fourth Duke of Rutland (1754-87), Lord Steward of the Royal Household, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The gold ring is set with cut diamonds around a canted rectangular glass reserve, containing a funerary urn pavé set with diamonds and dark hair behind. The hoop is enameled in black and lettered in gold, 'AMICITIAE.ET.HONORE'. Engraved behind, 'Charles Manners / Duke of Rutland / Obt 24th Octr, 1787 / Aet 34'.
Left: A black and white enameled mourning ring decorated with an urn, inscribed behind 'Jno Brown/ Ob.24.Novr/ 1795/ Aet:66'. Middle: A particularly fine example of an early 19th-century memorial ring, set with amethyst pastes and a neo-classical funeral urn on a white enamel background. The ring commemorates George Richard Savage Nassau (1756-1823), a country gentleman and book collector from Suffolk. Right: An enameled mourning ring set with pearls and rose-cut diamonds (symbolizing purity), c.1788. Remembering William Fauquier - a member of a notable Huguenot London family. All from ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A gold mourning ring enameled in black, the hoop with shoulders and bezel formed of two hands grasping an urn, hinged to reveal a locket for hair. Engraved inside with initials 'MP'. England, c.1791-2.
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 gold and cameo mourning ring, the bezel with an onyx cameo of an urn, the round hoop with a ground of black enamel between chain borders, a royal crown twice repeated, with supporters lions crowned rampant, and a monogram repeated three times, the design terminating towards the bezel on each side with a crowned lion rampant. Inscribed L.R. and G III Obt 1820. - © The Trustees of the British Museum
Around this time when classical motifs were dominating mourning jewelry, many pieces held personal and meaningful messages or mottos. These were perhaps most popular on pendants, brooches, and slides, where there was more room to fit a lot of writing, but mourning mottos and messages were also found on mourning rings like those below.
Gold mourning ring with a pointed oval bezel painted with a miniature on ivory/bone of a woman seated by an urn on a pedestal inscribed 'Rest in peace', a cherub holding a wreath above. The foliage at the bottom of the painted scene is made of chopped hair. In memory of Mick I Norton who died 13th Feb 1770, aged 60, and Ann Norton who died 14th Nov 1768, aged 60. England, late 18th century.
‘Not Lost But Gone Before’, a mourning ring depicting a cherub weeping, sitting at the base of a column whilst another hovers over the urn. The back with a stunning gold pierced monogram over hair behind crystal, with the inscription- ‘Margaret Saunders ob Jan 24th, 1777 ae 33.' - Antique Animal Jewelry
A pair of mourning rings, one for the husband, one for the wife, to honor their lost son Dan Craister. The larger is a Georgian 18ct mourning ring with the motto, 'Not Lost But Gone Before', featuring cherubs and an urn with initials DC made from macerated hair on white enamel. The reverse of the ring is inscribed ' Dan Craister Ob 22 May 1779 aet 26'. The smaller ring bears the motto, 'Weep not but prepare to follow' - Antique Animal Jewelry
'Sacred will I keep they dear remains' mourning ring, depicting a woman seated by an urn, looking wistfully at it. The navette bezel is bordered in a wheat sheaf design. 1786.
'In life beloved, in death lamented' mourning ring, depicting a woman seated by an urn, a cherub holding a scroll above inscribed, 'To Bliss'. In memory of Elizabeth Penfold, died 1788, aged 72.
Two mourning rings with the motto, 'Not lost but gone before', England, late 18th century. Left: With a sepia miniature on ivory of a veiled woman seated by an urn. A cherub holds a scroll inscribed TO BLISS. All on an octagonal bezel. In memory of Harriott Willock who died 18 Dec 1788, aged 15. Right: With a pointed oval bezel enclosing a miniature painted on ivory/bone of a woman seated by an urn. A strand of weeping willow is draped above the figure, the foreground made up of chopped hair simulating grass. In memory of Ann Scurfield who died 20 Oct 1790, aged 59. - Both ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Two 'sacred to friendship' Georgian mourning rings, English, late 18th-century. Left: The marquise bezel with a painting of Hope seated by an urn on a pedestal bordered by laurel. In memory of John Chalmers who died in 1786, aged 57 - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Right: The marquise bezel containing an urn upon an inscribed plinth, tree drooping above, foliage formed by hair, all under glass. In memory of Matthew Hilton who died in 1790, aged 26. - © The Trustees of the British Museum
A gold mourning ring enameled in black, the oval bezel with a miniature of a woman and a girl weeping beside an urn on a pedestal inscribed 'SACRED TO THE BEST OF HUSBANDS', in memory of WM. Hembrow, who died 8 Oct 1792, aged 31. England, late 18th century.
Gold mourning ring with a marquise bezel with a miniature of a girl seated by an obelisk inscribed 'To joy & happiness I rise', in memory of Eliza Clark who died 9 Oct 1792, aged 15. Her spirit, rising from the monument; is about to be crowned by an angel, England, late 18th century.
'Affection weeps, heaven rejoices' mourning ring. On the reverse is the phrase 'faithful to filial duty', suggesting the departed was the wearer's father. The bezel shows two women leaning over a tomb on which an urn stands. At left is a large anchor, (for loyalty and hope for those left behind). In memory of John Rosbe, who passed in 1794. - Via 1stdibs
Gold mourning ring with a Marquise bezel depicting on ivory a woman standing by an urn worked in hair, on a pedestal inscribed 'EVER TO BE REMEMBER'D' and inscribed behind, England, late 18th century. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
'Nipt in the bud' mourning ring, most likely for a child lost 'before their time', with the miniature depicting the motif of a broken rosebud. - From Glorious Antique Jewelry via Pinterest.
Ouroboros Georgian Mourning Rings
The Ouroboros motif (literally 'tail devourer' in Greek) is the symbol of a snake with its own tail in its mouth, creating an endless loop representing 'eternity'. Although it is often associated with marriage and love, symbolizing eternal love, it was also popular in mourning jewelry for the same reason, as well as signifying the eternal nature of the soul, and the endless cycle of life and death.
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
A gold and enamel mourning ring for Princess Amelia (1783-1810). The oval bezel is bordered by an ouroboros and enameled with a coronet and monogram 'A' with the words: 'REMEMBER ME'. The enameled white inscription around the ring reads: 'Princess. AMELIA. DIED. 2. NOV. 1810. AGED. 27.'
A mourning ring in 10k gold with a hair locket under glass. The locket is framed by an ouroboros detailed with crosshatched black enamel scales (characteristic of ouroboros jewelry from the period 1810-1815) and a red enameled mouth and eyes - From Erica Weiner
Georgian ouroboros snake mourning ring, c.1810. Inscribed 'Sarah Lane ob 27 Mar 1810 at 60'. The ouroboros is boldly crosshatched with black enamel inlay, and lies around a foiled and collet-set central garnet. - From Heart of Hearts Jewels
A mourning ring for Princess Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick. The ring is gold, enameled in black, inscribed in gold letters, 'Died/ 23 March,/ 1813./ aged 76'. The bezel depicts a princely coronet above a monogram A in enamel, with a relief serpent border set with a small rose-cut diamond eye.
An unusual Georgian finely chased gold snake ring, holding an original heart in his mouth with hairline locket back. His body twists around a lock of hair from a loved one. Initials engraved to the back of his head M.J. Could be a piece of sentimental jewelry or a piece of mourning jewelry. Antique Animal Jewelry
Georgian Microcarving Mourning Rings
Micro-carving was a popular technique in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Ivory carvings were mainly a continental specialty. Several towns in southern Germany were famous centers of ivory carving and there were also centers in Switzerland and France.
Mourning finger-ring with micro ivory detail depicting a figure on a background of plaited hair under glass. Inscribed, 'Preuve de mon amitié', 'Proof of my friendship', late 18th century
Hairwork in Georgian Mourning Rings
While hairwork in jewelry became very popular in the Victorian era, it was in practice from at least the seventeenth century onwards and was used in memento mori jewelry and Georgian mourning jewelry as well. The hair of the deceased was often incorporated into the background or the design itself or was set in a compartment at the back of the ring to give each jewel a uniquely personal element - capturing something of the deceased that would last beyond their death and preserving it in wearable form.
This mourning ring has an extremely unusual design, in that the bezel shows a landscape of a house or church under a large tree, made out of chopped hair. The white enamel hoop bears an inscription recording the death of Richard Townsend, Esq. on 12 March 1768, aged 44. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An unusual Georgian navette mourning ring displaying a tiered Temple. The reverse is engraved all over the back, around the inner band, and around the rim. 'Cath. Spears Ob 19 Dec 1755 Aet 27 Years 11 mo 11days'. 'Rach.l Halliday obt 2 Dec 1782 aet 82'. 'Rev Rul.... 12 Sept 1803 ae 80'. The rim - 'In Memoria Perpetua Justus Eret Ss' CXII 6. CXII 6 - is a Psalm: The Righteous Shall Be Had In Everlasting Remembrance - the Psalm details the happiness and satisfaction of a good man who leads a religious life.
Left: A mourning ring in memory of Princess Carolina, daughter of William Henry, Duke of Gloucester. The gold ring has a shuttle-shaped bezel with a beaded rim and white enamel border. The center us set with hair behind glass, c.1775-1844 Right: A gold mourning ring, the oval bezel hatched with blue enamel, with a knot of blond and dark hair behind glass. Inscribed inside, c.1790-1827 - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
This ring was made as a mourning jewel commemorating E. Tempest, who died 3 July 1784 at the age of 76. The Marquise ivory or bone bezel of the ring is set with a funerary urn that has been made from chopped hair (presumably the hair of the deceased) and small gold decorations. England, late 18th century
A gold mourning ring decorated with seed pearls, the marquise bezel with 'SWH' and willow leaves partly worked in hair, over plaited hair, England, late 18th century. 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. Pearls were associated with purity and grief, whilst white was often used to mourn children.
Left: A gold mourning ring enameled in black, the oval bezel containing a double knot of hair between two pieces of glass surrounded by garnets. English, c.1764. Right: A gold mourning ring with a slender channeled hoop, the oval bezel containing plaited hair covered with convex glass, and a border of seed pearls alternating with emerald pastes. English, c.1775-1800. - © The Trustees of the British Museum
A Georgian mourning ring with white enamel shoulders and a round bezel of plaited hair under glass with a border of clear, sparkling stones. Inscribed for Elizabeth H Taylor, ob 1st April 1797, aged 39. The white enamel suggests she was unmarried. - Antique Animal Jewelry
Left: An impressive mourning ring set with a ring of small seed pearls and cut jet/black garnet enclosing a panel of plaited hair under crystal. Middle: A mourning ring of gold with an octagonal bezel set with a covered panel of finely plaited hair and surrounded by white pastes. Right: This gold mourning ring, enameled in black and white and set with black garnets and plaited hair under glass, commemorates Barbara Towneley who died on 25 December 1797 at the age of 66. - All English, c.1780-1800, from ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Left: A gold mourning ring enameled in blue and set with seed pearls. The bezel with 'JLH' in monogram over plaited hair. Middle: A mourning ring with a circular bezel set with a loop of plaited hair under glass and the initials EWL in gold. It commemorates a child who died aged 9. Right: A gold mourning ring enameled in black and white commemorating William Godsell, who died 12 October 1810, at the age of 39. The use of white enamel suggests he may have been unmarried. The center of the bezel holds a plaited section of his hair. - All English, c.1780-1810, from ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Georgian black enamel rococo band mourning ring with plaited hair under a beveled crystal.
Family mourning rings for John Rose, 1815. They are inscribed, 'John Rose aged 8 years, full of health and Promise, snatched in one moment from his afflicted Parents and relations by falling from a Pony. Augt 18th 1815.' Each ring contains the blonde hair of John Rose under glass in the bezel.
Mourning ring for Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). The gold and black enamel ring has an octagonal swivel case containing, on one side, a gold crowned CR monogram on a ground of white hair under a crystal; the reverse with a lock of grey hair and an inscription on the band 'ob 17 Nov, 1818 aet. 75'. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
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
To wrap up, here are some Georgian mourning ring stacks and collections we love...
A collection of Georgian mourning rings - From @fetheray.jewels via Instagram
A collection of Georgian mourning rings - From @martillado via Instagram
A collection of (mostly) Georgian mourning rings From Grays Antiques (@charlotteantiquejewels) via Instagram
Memorial/mourning rings made by Ebenezer Taylor & John Kennard c.1820s © The Trustees of the British Museum
And here are some more Georgian mourning rings from Antique Animal Jewelry...