Halloween makes us want to pull out the blackest, most macabre jewelry in our collection – memento mori, or mourning jewelry. It can be difficult for us in the 21st century to understand why people wore jewelry that was a constant reminder of death. It feels a little creepy at first, but like all jewelry, mourning pieces were made from love and worn with love. This is antique jewelry at its most bittersweet and sentimental.
The fashion for mourning jewelry originated in Europe, where it first gained popularity after the 1649 execution of Charles I in England. Distributed at funerals, simple gold bands were engraved with the deceased name and dates. As the custom grew in popularity, mourning rings became more ornate and were decorated with enameled coffins, skulls, and crossbones. In the late 18th century, mourning rings evolved into small works of art. Funerary urns, willows, and weeping female figures were painted onto small ivory plaques and mounted into jewelry, as on our Georgian marquise shaped ring.
In the mid 19th century, human hair became an important part of mourning and sentimental love token jewelry. A loved one’s lock of hair was elaborated curled or plaited, then mounted in a plaque behind crystal or glass. Goldsmiths set these plaques into numerous types of jewelry, including brooches, pendants, or earring drops. Our Victorian garnet fly pendant and quatrefoil emerald locket show curls of hair shaped into delicate plumes or feathers, ornamented with gold wire.
Skulls, skeletons, coffins… the same imagery that decorates antique memento mori is also associated with Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. The sugar skulls and cut paper flags, depicting dancing skeletons in bright colors, show us that death is nothing to fear, it’s just the next big party.
How are you celebrating Halloween and the Day of the Dead this year?