For today’s look at a series of skeletal rings, I’m going to focus on the period of c.1700-c.1740 and take a look at a time when the skeleton was appropriated by an emerging industry…
The exceptional quality and design of this piece is relevant for its place in time. The decorations of the skeleton, hourglass, scythe and shovel were still used in the 1740s, but not to the extent as it had been. This ring is a beautiful example of evolution in its art and the style it emulates from the late 17th Century. Artwork surrounding this piece is much more detailed and not as naive as it had previously been, note the skeleton and the level of the skull’s quality. Its style, having large depictions of the evolved memento mori motifs, is quite unusual, as pieces that would have the motifs tended to be small and set under crystal.
During the period of around 1700-1760, there was a distinct change in the style of rings, but a clear evolution from what had come before. Shanks and bands became more delicate, some imitating scroll work in gold around the edge with enamelling over the top and an inscription over that.
To indicate pieces from this time, the shank or band are often a good points of reference due to their variation. The popularity of the Rococo style has a lot to do with this, the greater the delicacy and intricate form, the later into its period it becomes.
Year: c. 1745
Dedication: Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 at 83
Evolution of the (Skeleton) Symbol
“A rare early 18th century Memento Mori band gold known as a skeletal, as the whole length of the skeleton is employed on the outside of the hoop, with other emblems. The earliest known example is dated 1659. This ring is enamelled in black with a full skeleton, twin hearts for love and an hourglass, symbolic of the passage of time and the brevity of life. It is size J [US 4 and 5/8] and the band is 1/8 of an inch wide. A rare ring which has survived in amazingly good condition with enamel intact.”
Balancing our look at the Savage ring above is this equally magnificent memento mori ring with very closely related symbolism. Memento mori symbols are quite highly coveted by collectors as the symbolism of the skeleton still resonates today for mortality, as it always has, hence these pieces are very obvious in their intent.
Let’s look at the differences in the style. What we can gather about each is that there was a clear evolution in the standard of the painting of the symbolism from this particular piece, which is earlier and the Savage ring, which is later. Note the skull first. We have dimension added to the Savage ring, with the head turned to an angle, showing the full perspective of the skull and the jaw. Also, the jaw is stylistically drawn. The elongated rib cage on the Savage ring cascades across the roll of the band, which this particular ring doesn’t have, with the Savage ring adding another three ribs to the anatomy in order to stretch it out. Note also how the average band bows in at the legs and simply works well with its form factor. There’s much to appreciate about the artistry, as well as the basic premise of the stunning symbolism itself. The tempus fugit symbol is generally similar, though just altered around the shading.
Essentially, the main change comes down to the band of the piece. the full rounded style of the Savage ring is quite unusual for its time, where many flat bands were the norm, simply using the Rococo ribbon/twist flourishes and often the interior of the band was slightly rounded. Earlier straight bands of the c.1700 period, such as the example from 1715, show a leaner roll to the band itself, without such a high domed edge.
So, we have a ring that is highly stylised and defies convention for its time and another which exemplifies it. Both convey the same sentiment of mortality, but both show how the artistic style evolved from more primitive and simplistic styles, more typical with the 17th century, into the more typical miniaturisation of art into jewellery by the 18th century.
Skeleton in Degrees of Quality
Then there is this piece dating from 1714, which shows the clear continuity between c.1710 and c.1740. The Savage ring actually refines much of the stylisation that this ring. Note firstly the same as above, the shape/angle of the skull, the balance of the rib cage, the curve to the band and the comparable symbolism. Indeed, the style is so similar, they could be considered contemporary, and practically are, however, compare all three skeletons and note the advancing detail to the skull and memento mori symbols through the ages of such a short period of time.
The savage ring, while still retaining better condition of enamel work, has the higher rounded edge to the band and much finer attention to detail in art, sharing more similarities with its period and also showing just how a small amount of time advanced a rather unique style.
This doesn’t discredit the amount of production and fluctuating level of quality, both of which affect the outcomes of a piece of jewellery. The early 18th century was a time of increasing social mobility and higher industry/manufacture, hence the more prolific items were in demand and the industry was there to satisfy those demands, so there was a much greater degree of varied quality. To that end, the first half of the 18th century still used the memento mori motifs in popular format for mainstream jewellery and the industry had appropriated those motifs for death to a higher degree than the previous century. For example, look at the rise of the industry and how that affected and incorporated hairwork. Pieces made to order became more and more popular in the first half of the 18th century, with lockets (especially in the popular heart motif) containing hair becoming increasingly common. As larger jewellery with glass replaced faceted crystal, simple weaves of hair could be placed underneath, without it being a speciality craft or as expensive. By the 1760s, hair was reintroduced in mass produced memorial medallions and lockets (in England and on the Continent), as it was mixed in with sepia and painted on to ivory.
So, we’ve established that the industry had grow and there were varying degrees of quality, but what was more typical? This consideration is what makes these skeletal bands so special. Ribbon slides, and crystal-set pieces of jewellery with the memento mori motifs placed underneath (either painted metal placed on top of woven hair or material) was far more typical. Simple bands with skulls engraved into the top and set with black enamel were also quite prolific and grew more from the legacy of a posy ring, rather than the higher quality crystal pieces, but rings with the full symbolism were not as popular as these. Much of the evolution dating from c.1700 came from the revolving cut and shape of the crystal settings of the jewellery, from the rounded shapes to the more angular settings and higher facets in the cuts.
From what we’re left with today are a series of pieces from the 1650s to the 1740s (and quite possibly more varied examples exist) that convey a bold statement on mortality, are beautiful to behold and are as intrinsically important and vital today as they were when created. There is a microcosm of detail in the evolution of such small piece of art that one has to consider when looking at any piece and even the smallest amount of time can enact the greatest amount of change.