Victorian Jewelry History: What Was Everybody Crying About?
Rewinding your time machine to the Victorian era and living the life of an upper-middle-class wife in the mid-19th century would most certainly have its perks. You could live in a lavish house in London, wear exquisite gowns, take shopping trips to the town center and buy whatever clothing, household items or jewels your heart desired (and your husband's wallet allowed). Not to mention all the people that would be hired to be at your beck and call – you would never have to carry anything, cook or tidy the house ever again. What a great time to be alive! But all was not a walk in the park, and Victorian rules of social conduct reigned supreme, in all aspects of life... and death.
Say your husband, the head of the household and father of your children, unexpectedly passes away. You are left not only to deal with the consequences and try to put your life back together, you were also expected to mourn according to the strict Victorian mourning code. Even your jewelry would reflect the difficult times after your husband's passing.
The fascinating history of mourning jewelry probably goes as far back as people have been mourning their loved ones and been wearing jewelry. Even though the ”mourning jewelry trend” had its peak in Victorian times, there is a longer history of use. The accessories could take on many shapes and forms - English designs from the 1600s included sentimental love knots, or the more macabre skull, and in early America mourning rings were handed out at funerals. Other traditions, perhaps more eery by today's standards, included incorporating the departed's hair in glass and enamel paintings of weeping willow motifs, which gained popularity in the early 1800s.
From the 1830s and onwards, the deathly fashion of mourning jewelry experienced a big boom in business. Broaches, lockets, rings – mass production of mourning jewelery made it affordable for many and a must-have when mourning somebody's passing. Hair was even imported to be used in the jewelry – talk about dedication.
A few factors contributed to this 50-year boom: the mining of the gemstone jet, the crowning of Queen Victoria, the death of Prince Albert, and the American Civil War. Jet – or fossilized coal and driftwood – started being used to carve the most sought after mourning pieces. In the 1830s, mining began in the seaside town of Whitby, England, where jet was extracted from the nearby cliffs, making it a key factor in the production of mourning jewelry. Whitby's W Hamond company was Queen Victoria’s favorite jet jeweler, and is still operating today. After Victoria was crowned Queen of England in 1837, she greatly influenced the fashion and jewelry trends, and society followed her lead. So when her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, the way she grieved influenced the entire population's habits and ways of mourning. She wore jet jewelry and black for decades, and her court was also required to only wear jewelry made from jet. And the people followed suit.
Across the pond, the American Civil War also influenced the usage of mourning jewelry, morbidly enough because of the over 600,000 casualties the war caused. The soldiers that passed away in the four year war, meant that there were also an abundance of people mourning, and the jewelry industry rode high for the next 25 years. But you can't mourn forever – the popularity of mourning jewelry began to wane in the 1880s, and even Queen Victoria relaxed her strict mourning attire as her 50th anniversary jubilee approached in 1887. Instead of jet, which is quite expensive, other alternatives started appearing – made from other, cheaper (and difficult-to-pronounce) materials such as Gutta-percha, Black onyx, French jet, Dark tortoiseshell, Cast iron or Vulcanite.
Even though Victorian times are long gone (we hope you're back from your trip with your time machine), the mourning jewelery left behind is still prized by collectors all over the world. Mourning jewelry, and strict Victorian rules about mourning, do perhaps not seem so dated at all, when you consider that wearing your departed family member's necklace or ring, or having your Grandmother's diamonds reset into another piece, still happens today. Mourning, after all, is universal. And so are shiny, sparkly things.