Mourning Jewelry and The Rake’s Handbook: Including Field Guide
Mourning rituals in 19th century England were a complex set of social rules and behaviors, including wearing mourning jewelry. On my first trip to London in 1981, I found an exhibit of early mourning jewelry. Frankly, I was blown away by how each little piece communicated a story and deep emotion. For example, hair jewelry made out of the actual hair of the deceased. It seems creepy to some people now, but I can understand how hair jewelry might become a prized possession.
Mourning jewelry was constructed in such large numbers in England that there is quite a bit of it available for sale today. For example, a search on eBay for “mourning” under jewelry will provide many of the more common pieces: beautifully carved Whitby jet (a coal-like substance); lace pins made from paste stones, gold, and hair; and brooches that have beautiful stones or micomosaics on the front, and then on the reverse, a section for hair under glass. I’ve even seen very early Stuart pieces made of rock crystal containing skull motifs. Note: if you look for mourning pieces made during the Regency era on ebay, be sure to use “Georgian” as a keyword.
Here are some examples of mourning pieces found on eBay.
A locket containing the hair and initials of a family. You have to wonder if they all died at the same time? Or is it just a mother wanting a piece like this to keep her children close.
The reverse of this locket may be hair from a husband and wife, immortalized and together forever?
This piece is interesting too. Who did the two pieces of different hair on the bottom belong to in relation to the top piece? A couple with a piece of hair from a dead child or perhaps siblings with a parent’s hair?
Many of the more expensive pieces are beautifully painted in sepia with various sayings. Notice the hair around the edges and the saying, “Tho lost to sight, to memory dear.”
In my first book, THE RAKE’S HANDBOOK: INCLUDING FIELD GUIDE, my heroine had lost her husband a couple of years before the story started. In my story, the heroine was genuinely in love with her husband. So much so, she did not believe she could fall in love twice. So I gave her a mourning brooch to remember him.
“She glanced at her chest, and at William’s mourning brooch pinned over her heart. After removing the brooch, she examined a lock of his soft hair sealed under glass, isolated from her touch. Small plaits of his light hair looked so smooth and orderly, it gave her comfort to be gazing on him again. Even if it was just a tiny piece of the funny, complex man she loved. She turned the brooch over and on the front a painted sepia figure in her likeness gazed out to a ship on the distance horizon. A small dog lay at her feet. The diamonds along the brooch’s border represented her tears, the dog represented her fidelity, and the ship out to sea represented William’s voyage. In the sky above, an angel carried a banner with the words: “Not lost, gone before.””