Popularised in the Eighteenth century the giving of commemorative jewellery reached it’s zenith in the 19th Century. The decoration of mourning rings evolved from the language of funerary monuments and often depicted urns, willow trees, broken columns or a weeping woman. If the deceased was a married person the ring would be enamelled in black if the person was a child or single the enamel would be white. During the Victorian period the language of mourning and jewellery was expanded, often commemorative pieces would incorporate a lock of the deceased hair or in some cases would be completely manufactured from hair. Later popularised by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert jewellery crafted from Whitby Jet became highly fashionable and sought after.
After doing some initial research I visited the fabulous collections of commemorative jewellery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford and lastly the Pannett Art Gallery at Whitby. The latter has an incredible collection of jewellery made of the famous local jet. As a material jet is light owing to it being the fossilised wood of the monkey puzzle tree. Therefore in accordance with the high Victorian fashion for dark and heavy clothing large Jet provided a material aesthetically suitable for large and ornate jewellery items without the hindrance of being too heavy for the wearer. During the Great exhibition of 1851 jewellery crafted from Whitby Jet impressed dignitaries such as the Empress of France and the Queen of Bavaria, such famous patronage escalated the fashion for Jet jewellery. However it was not until 1861 following the death of Prince Albert that the nations taste began to mimic that of the monarch and the ‘craze’ for jewellery really took off.
Both The Pannett Art Gallery and The Pitt Rivers Museum have good examples of delicate and highly crafted hair work jewellery. The Pitt Rivers has a beautiful collection of elaborate bead necklaces produced exclusively from the hair of the deceased, though not to modern tastes they represent a period when mourning was all encompassing and remberance paramount ‘Whose hair I wear, I Loved most dear’.