The Romance of Victorian Jewelry: Mourning Brooches and Sentimental Keepsakes

Victorian Mourning Jewelry: A Mid-Victorian Serpent Necklace, c. 1870. A Mid-Victorian Serpent Necklace, c. 1870. Sold for £9,500 GBP via Dreweatts 1759 Fine Sales (July 2022).

Queen Victorias reign lasted between 1837 and 1901, during which her tastes and preferences in everything from clothing to jewelry informed those of her court, the upper classes and the general public in the UK. Pieces from the early period of her reign were full of romantic symbolism and often contained hearts, bows, flora and fauna. For instance, when her husband-to-be, Prince Albert, gifted her an emerald-set snake engagement ring, it initiated a country-wide trend of wearing a snake motif as a symbol of eternal love. Acrostic rings (a type of jewellery that has a hidden message within its design) became popular too.

Victorian Mourning Jewelry: Antique Mizpah Brooch.

Antique Mizpah Brooch. Sold for $35 AUD via Albion Antique Auction Centre (March 2024).

It was common to give tokens of love and affection or to mark periods of prolonged separation. Mizpah jewelry became popular beyond the Jewish community during this period – rings, lockets and brooches, often made from silver, were engraved with the word mizpah”, which means watchtower” in Hebrew (the meaning is may God watch over you”).

Victorian jewelry was often sentimental in nature. Mourning jewelry was already in vogue when Prince Albert died in 1861 and the queen entered a state of mourning in which she would remain for the rest of her life. So its popularity surged further when, to emulate the royal court, women began to wear pieces such as mourning brooches featuring photographs and strands of hair, elaborate lockets and inscribed rings. Motifs of weeping willows and urns were also used to convey grief and mourning and there was renewed interest in Gothic and Mediaeval themes. Victorian mourning periods tended to be lengthy and could last for a year or even longer. Mourners stayed away from shiny jewelry and dressed in black, although by the second year in the mourning process, they would begin to introduce a little colour, along with pearls and diamonds.

Jet, a black or dark brown semi-precious stone, was considered one of the few gemstones that was suitable for mourning. Jet could also be made into matte pieces in accordance with ancient beliefs that shiny surfaces reflected images of the dead. Taking their cue from Queen Victoria, the act of mourning and its associated accessories became an entire industry, and mourning warehouseswere established in Londons West End, selling everything from dark clothing and fabric to coffins. Mourning jewelry gradually declined in popularity from 1901 after the death of Queen Victoria and as women became increasingly emancipated.

Mourning Rituals and Remembrance

Mourning jewelry played a role in communicating the bond between the mourner and the departed and this form of adornment proliferated during the late Victorian era. This period saw the flourishing of personalised jewelry, which had engravings of initials or the names of the deceased and their date of death. Lockets containing miniature portraits or hair of loved ones were popular.

After Queen Victoria began to sport them, acrostic rings, bracelets and necklaces became de rigueur and also served as a way to demonstrate ones social standing. In these pieces, the name of the person who had passed away or messages such as In memory of” or Remember me” could be spelled out by arranging the gems so that the first letter of each spelled out a word, making the piece more meaningful and sentimental.

Another sentimental keepsake was hair jewelry (jewelry made of hair, rather than jewelry to adorn the hair) which at the height of its popularity became its own art form. These pieces were crafted as tokens of love, friendship or in memory of a loved one. Pieces often took the form of brooches, necklaces, and bracelets.

Eyes were also a poignant symbol in mourning jewelry. Originally associated with a romantic gift, a miniature painting of a single eye was often included in brooches to signify the presence of the departed who could watch over the wearer. Pearls were also often used in the setting, representing tear drops.

Collecting Victorian Jewelry

Although Victorian jewelry went through several distinct periods, its earlier iterations can be identified by romantic themes of birds and flowers, as well as hearts and bows. Many pieces featured corals, amethysts, turquoise and seed pearls. Later pieces tended to use darker stones, such as jet and onyx, as well as black enamel. Some of the most common materials were silver, gold, and colored gold to craft floral motifs, often decorated with semi-precious gems.The discovery of silver and gold reserves in Britains colonies made these materials much more affordable to many people. The colonies also influenced fashion in the Victorian era, with jewelry referencing the deep colors and rich textures of India.

The Industrial Revolution changed the way and speed in which jewelry could be made. Steam-powered machines and new metalworking methods, such as electroplating, led to mass production, which made jewelry much more affordable to the middle classes.

When thinking about starting your own Victorian jewelry collection, consider finding a reputable dealer with a good reputation. This sort of expert will be able to tell you all about the piece youre interested in, including its age, materials, and history. As with any new collection, think about starting small and focusing on things like Mizpah jewelry, cameo brooches or pieces that feature a specific motif.

Although some Victorian jewelry can be a little ornate for modern tastes, much of it can still be incorporated into modern wardrobes. A jet pendant or brooch, or a serpent ring, can add interest and wont look out of place. Cameo rings or brooches made from coral, shell, and lava stone were extremely popular during this period and can blend in and elevate many individual styles.