As a popular material for the purposes of fashion, jet was held in high regard during the 1860s-1890s. Why this is so important to acknowledge is because of the common misconception that jet was strictly a ‘mourning material’, which is popularised by its black colour. However, it was a material conducive to being wonderful for memorial and sentimental purposes for the reason of high customisation. For a time and a culture that was facing both high mortality rates and culturally based in the ideal Christian family paradigm, sentimentality being popular fashion to display to a conservative public was required.
With this mourning locket, we see the use of jet and its dedication that work together to represent the loved one in perfect harmony. From the reverse, we have the palette-worked hair with its feathered and curled display woven together with the gold wire. Surrounding this is the most remarkable dedication of ‘Fell Asleep June 27th 1870 Aged 17’, which, in itself, creates a narrative to the piece which reveals its intention for its time.
Age and mourning define how a jewel is represented. The age of the person, whom we will assume is ‘DWS’ as per the initials on the front of the piece, was only 17 years old. For a time when the average mortality age was forty, this is an age where the expectation of the individual was to establish themselves in society. While the highest mortality rate for 1870 was under five years old, the lowest was between ten to nineteen. Having the sentiment of ‘fell asleep’ resonates back to the family of DWS and their perceptions on living. Look to jewels of the 18th and early 19th century for a young person who has passed on. The white enamel, denoting virginity and purity for the unmarried or young, combined with the opulent Neoclassical depictions of allegorical settings. Souls flying off to the heavens being accepted by cherubs, urns, willows are the common mourning themes. Now, we have the stark reality of the fact, that being ‘fell asleep’ and the large, jet pendant to wear outside the clothing, showing the family member in deep mourning.
Having the hairwork so delicately displayed does reflect upon the status of the family as well. This was a piece that had a great deal of care put into its construction. It could be established that the family, in their presentation of mourning, had the requirement of the three stages of mourning heavily imposed upon them due to their visibility in society. First mourning lasted one year and a day, outdoor garments for this would be shown by the plainness and amount of crape, jet jewellery was permitted. After one year and a day, Second stage was introduced. This involved less crape and its application to bonnets and dresses became more elaborate. It was frowned upon if this period was entered into too quickly and it lasted nine months in all. The Third stage (or Ordinary stage), introduced after twenty-one months, involves the omission of crape, inclusion of black silk trimmed with jet, black ribbon and embroidery or lace were permitted. Post 1860, soft mauves, violet, pansy, lilac, scabious and heliotrope were acceptable in half mourning. This period lasted three months. The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine stated that ‘many widows never put on their colours again’ and this was quite a statement for the identity of the woman, which was held under the veil of mourning and family symbolism for the rest of her life. Hats, shawls, mantles, gloves, shoes, fans all changed during mid century, and pagoda sleeves from 1850-70 were fashionable, designed to be stitched to the outer sleeve to cover modesty from the lower arm and wrist. Wide skirts from the 1850s-70s, tie back fashions of the late 1870s and the ‘S-bend’ look of the early 1900s all were adapted to mourning fashion, without a clear definition of difference between them. Throughout the post 1880s decline, in the 1890s, women would wear their veils at the back of the head only, showing hair beneath bonnets at the front for first stage mourning. This defiance was quite bold and marked a large turning point for mourning structure.
Note the carving to the jet and this piece, with the Greek Key motif being used as a border, shows more insight into concurrent styles. The Greek Keys were heavily used from the 1860s and reflect the cultural elements in design that carried on from the Neoclassical movement. For a history of the Greek Keys and their usage in jewellery history, please follow the link (click the image):
What we’re left with is a piece that reflects its style for the time, a time when society and its impositions made mourning a social requirement, rather than an affectation or fundamental statement of grief. Jet, the Greek Keys, the hairwork and the sentiment all show a piece of jewellery that was both ideal in fashion and sentiment for its time.