People have always needed to somehow maintain the spirit of loved ones even after their physical absence, so throughout history various ingenious ways of accomplishing that have emerged. As long as humans have been around, they have found ways of remembering and honoring those who have gone before, first on cave walls and probably other less permanent ways as well. When man’s understanding of his environment and resources increased to the point where he could use materials to create lasting impressions of departed loved ones, he began to create mourning jewelry.
Earliest examples of mourning jewelry
Literally thousands of years ago, man began using a semi-precious mineraloid called jet, which is comprised of decayed wood under extreme pressure for eons, resulting in a very hard dark brown or black stone. The jet deposits around Whitby, England for instance were formed almost 200 million years ago. Jet was recognized for its shiny brilliance and suitability for carving, so it was first used in mourning jewelry thousands of years ago, although this was sporadic among European cultures. By about the third century, jet came into steadier usage, and was commonly used to make remembrances of loved ones in the form of rings, hair pins, and pendants.
Hair jewelry has also been a favorite means of remembering loved ones, partly due to the fact that it has historically represented life in many cultures, and also because it was an actual physical part of the deceased. Used in ancient Egypt to recall those who passed into the next world, hair jewelry found favor, especially among more affluent classes. Mexican Indians also made early use of rudimentary hair jewelry, preserving hair for the passage to the beyond as a means of finding their way in that new existence.
Recent historical uses of mourning jewelry
Beginning in about the fifteenth century, mourning rings were commonly given as gifts to family and friends who had experienced the loss of a loved one, many of these having simple skulls in their design. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mourning rings had become so popular that they were sometimes planned for before death, one notable example being the English diarist Samuel Pepys, who directed that over one hundred mourning rings be given out upon his death.
In the later eighteenth century, enamel began to be used as a material for mourning rings, with white enamel designating a single person and black enamel a married one. Braided hair rings began to appear by the nineteenth century to commemorate the passing of a loved one, usually being made of gold with a ringlet of the loved one’s hair.
Jet mourning jewelry continued to be popular in European countries and North America because it could be mined easily in those areas, and became so popular that Queen Victoria commanded that only jet jewelry be used to memorialize her departed husband King Albert for the first three years after his death.
Hair jewelry also gained popularity in the nineteenth century, and in Scandinavia and Sweden, it became a huge commercial concern, with many craftsmen learning the art of creating hair jewelry for mourning, then taking it with them to nearby towns and cities. During the American Civil War the practice of making hair jewelry became common as soldiers leaving home for the war left samples of hair which could be woven into remembrances upon their deaths.
This post was brought to you by the team at Greer Family Mortuary in Alameda, CA