Memento Mori and Mourning Jewelry

The Haunting Beauty of Memento Mori and Mourning Jewelry

Every October the air gets cooler, the nights get longer, and witches and skeletons start appearing in our neighbourhood. Our once cheerful flower gardens become graveyards, while jack-o-lanterns and cobwebs cover every door stoop. Of course this is all to celebrate Halloween, the one night a year that the spirits of the dead are said to be able to cross over into the world of the living, and the living dress in disguises to trick the spirits into leaving them alone. In keeping with this spooky holiday we will look at jewelry designed around the subject of death, in the styles of Memento Mori and mourning jewelry.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which means “Remember that you will die” and can refer to art, jewelry, or literature that focuses on mortality. Memento Mori as an artistic genre is thought to have originated in Roman times and gained popularity in Europe in the 14th century, which coincidentally was the time of the Black Death. Memento Mori jewelry was decorated with the iconography of death, such as skulls, skeletons, and coffins. It was worn to remind the wearer of their own mortality and to inspire them to live piously and cherish their earthly life.

Memorial Jewelry

In the 17th century the Memento Mori style began to be used to commemorate the death of a particular person. Rings were the most common memorial jewelry but lockets, pendants and brooches were also produced. This jewelry would have the name and age of the deceased, and their date of death engraved into gold. The images of skulls, skeletons and coffins were still common and the jewelry was usually decorated with black enamel if the deceased was married and white enamel if they were unmarried. Money was often left in the will of the deceased for the creation of mourning rings, which were to be distributed to their close friends or family after they had passed.

Victorian Mourning Jewelry

In 1861 Prince Albert, the beloved husband of Queen Victoria died of typhoid. The queen was swept into deep mourning, which was imposed on all the British court. While the Victorian people still had a high mortality rate, it was Victoria’s response to Albert’s death that was the catalyst for the public to adopt mourning fashions. Death and grieving was a public act, and an entire industry was created to fulfill the massive demand for mourning clothes and jewelry. Skulls and skeletons were still popular motifs, as well as hourglasses, urns, willow trees, forget-me-nots and weeping eyes. In the first stages of mourning a widow was only allowed to wear black clothes and jewelry, which led to the trend of jet jewelry. Jet is black fossilized driftwood, which was mined in Whitby, England and was turned into jewelry by sculpting or faceting into beads. Because of the high cost of jet many imitations were created which led to the first plastic ever to be used in costume jewelry. Another style of mourning jewelry that gained popular was hair jewelry, in which the hair of the deceased was incorporated into the design. Some hair jewelry used strands of hair to make miniature portraits and scenes, while another style was to braid or weave the hair so that it resembled lace. Hair jewelry was a way to keep a part of a loved one with you forever. Hair jewelry went out of fashion with the rise of photography, as people opted to keep lockets with a photograph of the deceased instead.

The Perfect Halloween Accessory?

Although you can still find jewelry designs today incorporating skulls, they are usually for aesthetic purposes only and don’t hold the spiritual meaning they used to. In today’s society we don’t like to dwell on death or the idea that our lives could be over at any time. The societies of the past didn’t have that option as their lack of medical and scientific expertise meant they had very high mortality rates and death was all around them. In spite of such hardships the jewellers of the time were able to use the darkness of death to inspire such beautiful work. And while we may not want to wear jewelry as a reminder of death on an everyday basis, it is the perfect accessory for a scary Halloween.

Images Courtesy of Art of Mourning

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Sara Cumming
Sara is a Production Assistant at Kimberfire - a brilliant way to buy engagement rings, fine jewelry and loose diamonds in Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Art from York University and a Diploma in Jewellery Arts from George Brown College. She is skilled in jewellery design using CAD software, as well as traditional goldsmith techniques. When she is not immersing herself in all things jewellery, Sara is a dog mom to Barley, her beagle mix rescue dog who loves a good tummy rub.
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