Pearls and Mourning Jewellery

Some of the world's oldest-known forms of jewellery were actually discovered in burial grounds, enclosed deep within the graves of the dead. These ancient forms of jewellery were used ceremonially to mourn and honour the dead. Many were made of gold, and many ancient mourning or memorial jewellery specimens often contained teeth, hair or bones from human remains.

Pearls made a regular appearance during the Victorian era. Pearls, in particular, were seen to represent tears and became hugely popular during Victoria’s reign. Queen Victoria wore strands and strands of them for the remainder of her life.

The popularity of mourning jewellery reached its peak after the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria of England was saddened over the loss of her beloved husband. Her use of mourning jewellery popularised the tradition throughout the era. Up until Victoria’s reign, mourning jewellery was often dark and macabre. This didn’t work for the romantic Victoria who had a loving relationship with Albert. She made mourning jewellery fashionable and encrusted her remembrance jewels with hearts and flowers and pearls.

In fact, in 1861, it became customary for widows to wear mourning jewellery after the loss of a husband, for a period of one to two years. However, Queen Victoria who loved jewellery and had lots of it, wore her mourning ring for the remainder of her life.  Queen Victoria was never to wear colour again, sticking to black and the occasional flourish of white (including her wedding veil), and either black or colourless jewellery in the form of jet or diamonds and pearls.

Mourning jewellery was not just for women. Many men also wore mourning jewellery and macabre mementos in honour of their loved ones, usually in the form of cufflinks, lockets and pocket watches.

Mourning jewellery became widely associated with the Victorian era, even though it had been around long before Queen Victoria. Mourning jewellery became commercialized, rather than invented during the Victorian era. Mourning rings were the most popular form of mourning jewellery worn. They were usually paid for by the family of the deceased. In most cases, the wealthier the family was, the more they would spend on elaborate designs. In many cases, mourning jewellery was often given to close relatives of the deceased. Mourning rings ranged from plain gold bands, to fancy designs with diamonds, precious stones and the queen of gems, pearls, mostly in the form of seed pearls.

This jewellery was designed by the wealthy and still today we can find the most amazing brooches and rings that were manufactured in this era. Black was the most popular colour for mourning jewellery during the Victorian era. With regard to gemstones, jet was an especially popular choice for those who could afford it. Jet is a fossilized organic gemstone prized for its black colour and waxy, velvety lustre. Black agate, black onyx, obsidian (natural volcanic glass) and hematite were also very popular. Another element often incorporated into mourning jewellery were pearls which represented tear drops. 

For those who could not afford natural  black gemstones, other materials were often substituted, such as black glass. As for the making of jewellery mountings, black enamel was the hallmark of most mourning jewellery designs, since it was very affordable and because there were not many other black materials to choose from for gem settings.

However, in many cases, other coloured materials were also used, since the colours had certain meanings when it came to mourning. For example, it was believed that when a woman died unwed and virginal, it was considered proper to mourn and honour her with white mourning jewellery; in this case, white enamel was often used. To mourn the death of a child, pearls were often used and set into mourning jewellery.

The fashion of mourning jewellery gradually declined after 1901 following the death of Queen Victoria.

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