Jewelry of the Victorian era

Jewelry of the Victorian era: the most unexpected and macabre jewels

Since the dawn of human history, in every society, jewelry has always been the bearer of numerous symbols and meanings, floating in what Alba Cappellieri, Full Professor at Politecnico di Milano and Director of the Jewelry Museum in Vicenza, defines as “a shining and varied weave of applications and purposes” in her book Il Gioiello Oggi, Arte Moda e Design. It has always involved not only the body, but also the cultural, emotional and affective sphere of those who wear jewels. Even more when it is a gift for a loved one or a memory of an intimate bond of love or friendship.

Miniature eye, unknown artist, early 19th century, England | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sentimental jewelry has always played a central role. The first we remember is certainly the engagement ring, the wedding promise, symbol of union and, finally, the vow of eternal love. The emotional value of these jewels is passed down from generation to generation. Frequently, wedding rings are given to children and grandchildren in the memory of endless family love, the fruit of which will continue over time. During the course of history, jewels have become bearers of love messages intended for the loved ones, and symbols of deep emotional bonds, through a symbolic imagery composed of figures like hands holding tightly, doves, hearts, cupids and many more idyllic images.

But the sentimental jewelry, which found the peak of its diffusion and splendor in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, has been declined in many forms and materials that we would not expect at all. Who, nowadays, would consider a gesture of love wearing the hair of the deceased loved one? Yet, this rather macabre and grotesque ornament became very fashionable at the time. In fact, among the many feelings celebrated by jewelry, there is also that of mourning, and even though its origins are more ancient, the mourning style took hold during the Victorian era, particularly after 1861, the year in which Queen Victoria’s mother and her husband Albert died. From that moment onwards, the Queen was mourning all her life, remembering the deep bond of loyalty with the Prince Consort, and influencing considerably the fashion and the style of the time.

Queen Victoria in mourning, William Bambridge, 1862

Hair was not only hidden in small drawers inside mourning jewelry, but it was also flaunted and even used as decorative braiding for bracelets, necklaces, earrings and brooches. The desire to wear a tangible memory of the deceased loved one, in this case their hair, was dictated by the need to physically feel them close after the painful separation. At the time photography was still little used, and mourning jewelry represented the only way to eliminate distances and remember the image of the loved ones, both for men and women. If on the one hand sobriety was the rule, on the other extravagant and at times disquieting jewels started spreading more and more. In fact, the dominant colour was black, and the materials were usually rather poor, such as jet, to give full expression to the immaterial meaning of the object. However, at the same time, goldsmiths would indulge with images of worms, urns, and skulls with the words “Memento Mori”(“remember death”). Even the teeth of the deceased were used for the creation of this macabre jewelry. What for us would today be a source of disgust, at the time had a strong emotional and affective value. The ring with the teeth of the deceased loved one was the most romantic gesture you could think of… today, we shiver at the very thought of it. In this period, there were also recurrent jewels in particular rings, in black enamel of somewhat dark style, which bear the name of the deceased, or their initials, or love phrases dedicated to them. Also their miniatures were very popular. Sometimes, especially on brooches, there was represented only their eye, symbol of vigilance and protection over the life of the loved ones.

Braid pendant made with hair, unknown artist, England | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In conclusion, in every era, jewelry has embodied specific characteristics and unique values, which in some cases have crystallized, becoming eternal, in other cases they have been lost over time, nevertheless remaining a fascinating source of inspiration and object of study. The latter is the case with the Victorian mourning jewelry: for us today, it would be impossible to wear such ornaments. However, the theme of the macabre, the imagery of skulls, of “Memento mori”, as an incentive to remember the fugacity of life, of the watching eye over the present and future, even the one of teeth, are still present in contemporary jewelry. Aimed at surprising and shocking, in more and more creative variations, the theme of the dark has changed its point of reference, today no longer the one of the mourning. Though, it still remains very fascinating to be inspired by the most extreme limits achieved by the symbolism of jewelry over the course of history. A story that has always accompanied humanity from the beginning and that will never cease to amaze us.

Mourning ring, unknown artist, ca. 1860, England | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cappellieri A. (2014, August 29). Gioielli sentimentali. Gioielli.
Cappellieri A. (2010). Il gioiello oggi. Arte Moda Design. Milan: Mondadori Electa S.p.A.    
Potenza, G. (2020, November 14). I Gioielli Da Lutto: Macabro Feticcio Di Moda in Epoca Vittoriana. Vanilla Magazine.