With its absence of light and its embodiment of the mystery of the unknown, black is the accepted primary colour of mourning in modern times.The soul departing into a darkness through which the final destination cannot be seen is interpreted in fashion, as the deepest black with no reflective surfaces becomes the ideal of mourning.
White, for its modern connotations of purity, virginity, marriage and celebration, as well as its ability to remove the darkness from the world, is a colour not currently synonymous with the concept of mourning. However, it was one that was typically used in mourning jewels and fashion in Western tradition through to the 20th century.
Rarely is a loss more devastating than that of a parent who is forced to bury his or her child. The inability of the object of one’s own creation to carry forward the memory and ideals of the family is essentially the end of the family itself. Thus, mourning jewellery’s primary use is to capture as much of someone that can be worn, so that the departed may remain close to us in a physical and finite form. In the case of memento moris created to honor the memory of a child, the child’s essence of purity and innocence must be preserved, if their memory is to remain as pure as they were.
In 1700, the mortality rate of England was 37 years old. The 18th century saw the greatest amount of disruption, with changing lifestyles through industrialisation, relocation, education and new wealth. These social changes, which greatly affected growing cities, became the template for our modern infrastructure, from sanitisation to housing communities. By 1820, the mortality rate had risen to 41 and by the 20th century, 50. Today, the rate is 77, hence we are living longer through technologies, nutrition and socio-political protection.Death, however, is random at best. It is an inevitability that cannot be prevented by any means. Our modern concepts of mourning and how we envelop fashion around it require a unified social concept of the trappings of grief. The simple act of wearing black or white takes on a deeper significance of love and respect when done for the purposes of mourning, tribute and commemoration.
The use of white in the enamel of memento mori jewels was often intended to commemorate the unmarried and the young. Throughout the 18th century, three popular art movements controlled fashion and architecture; Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical. Each of these developed the usage of white in jewels of death, which was previously used solely for detail of bones and memento mori elements jewellery.
With the introduction of the18th century Rococo period and its infusion of naturalistic designs in jewellery, color and symbolism became primary elements in memento mori jewels. The previous Baroque period was notorious for its bolder, dominating design; however, mourning jewels represent something far more personal than the grander statements of building and architecture.
Cost and the essential nature of wearing a mourning jewel requires that the wearer invest some intrinsic personal affectation into the jewel and that the jewel must reflect something of its time. The 18th century essentially established the industry of mourning, due in part to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of faster methods of production and a society which was becoming more and more mobile, with greater access to education and techniques.
To see the evolution of artistic talent that made this jewel possible, one must look back to the previous century, where the basis of the industry began. In 1686, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to Huguenot goldsmiths and jewellers emigrating to Great Britain. During this period, the previous allowance by Henry IV of France provided Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) significant rights. With this retraction, the Huguenots brought with them skills which enabled the London trade to compete with Paris. This led to greater patronage, and an influx of greater designs and new elements of fashion appearing as popular in jewels. By the mid 18th century, much of the values that were carried to Britain were instilled within the new industry and led to such elements as the Rococo designs in jewellery from its continental influence.
After this influx of Huguenot talent, the mourning industry grew along with jewellery development. Mourning rings flourished under both established government that had not been seen during the Interregnum (Cromwell) period, as well as the new wealth that developed from the burgeoning Industrialisation movement.
Jewellery could now be personalized to suit the tastes of the buyer with much more detail. The art periods of Baroque and Rococo developed the design of the dominating band in rings, which offered the opportunity to display individual names and dates designed into the gold of the band and to fill the recessed areas with coloured enamel. Many of the jewels that exist today are those that are hardest to repurpose and easily traced through a family line. Several mourning rings would be commissioned in the will for friends and family of the deceased at their death, and this is why it is common to find matching pairs today.
In the death of a child, the suddenness of the event is generally not planned, unless of an existing ailment. The speed to action that it would take to produce a bespoke ring between the period of an unexpected death and the funeral required talent and skill to produce. Wealth was also an important factor in requesting a jewel at a rapid production pace.
Mourning rings developed from posy rings, which could house simple sentiments inscribed beneath the band. Typically, these were written in phonetic English, French, Latin or Norman French. During the 17th century, there was much cross-over between the mourning ring and the posy, due to the sentiments and symbolism. In this ring from 1658, the inscription under the band ‘Wee part to meete’ is a simple dedication of love beyond the grave. White enamel is used in the laurel wreath design on the outside in perfect form by Thomas Sharp. There is no overt acknowledgement that the white enamel here is for the young or unmarried, but it would not be difficult to assume.
A connection between the rise in the talent of jewelers and the detail of mourning jewels in the 17th century becomes clear. Earlier posy rings could adapt to different levels of society with the use of a variety of materials, many less costly than gold.
The quality of inscription ranged from crude to highly detailed, depending on the goldsmith in the 16th century. Inlay of white enamel in this 1658 ring is uniform and presented in a perfect manner. The laurel motif is cleanly designed and there is a level of confidence in its construction. This example of white enamel inlay in a mourning band would set the template for the next century.
Baroque designs only amplified the elaborate designs of memento mori in jewellery. This ring, inscribed “W.S.ob.5 May 1731” and made by the London goldsmith William Coles, strikes the perfect balance between Baroque, memento mori and white enamel in usage. Not long after this ring was created, the fashion was to move the interior dedication to the exterior of the ring. What this exquisite example does display is a highly stylised skull wrapping into the acanthus leaf design, in a fashion that was purely Baroque.
Rococo’s introduction to mainstream fashion further expanded the use of nature in design. It is to the credit of the goldsmiths during this time that a ring of this quality could be produced and tailored to its subject. The name of the deceased and date of death are carefully designed into the band. Roccoco rings, and in particular those designed for mourning, favoured the ribbon motif in the band. The ability to contain this information in a single token was limited, of course, by the diameter of the wearer’s finger. Accordingly, jewelers sought to develop ways around this challenge. One area for the name, another for the date and one more for the age is typical. With high talent influx into England during the late 17th century, the 18th century reaped the benefits of this newly-arrived talent in the production of increasingly-masterful pieces.
An additional feature popularized in the Roccoco period is the rosette shape of the reverse of the bezel and the curved inner roll to the band itself. These styles were developed in the early 18th century in France and were introduced into England. Larger styles of these bezels can be seen in larger court jewels of Louis XIV. As can be seen inside the band, the segments are all joined as one piece, rather than a connection of panels.
What this ring does retain from the 17th century is the memento mori skull, placed under crystal. Faceted crystal, sometimes referred to as ‘Stuart Crystal’, as it was popular during the Stuart era of monarchy, was eventually replaced by glass in the latter 18th century, however, its replacement for a faceted diamond allows for the same radiant effect. Material or hair would often be placed under this, with the memento mori symbol sitting on top.
As the death of the young or unmarried may be a sudden event, it is once more to the credit of the goldsmiths that anything of this high level of detail could be produced. Having excess in a popular fashion only applies more pressure to a timeline that is very finite. Having the rings ready for a funeral would be ideal, but the time between the death and the funeral was short.
It is with the introduction of the Neoclassical period (c.1760) that symbolism moves away from the literal elements of death. The Neoclassical period was ushered in through the archaeological discoveries in Herculaneum and Pompeii, providing society with genuine discoveries of ancient civilizations, locked in time. These classical symbols were readily-adopted in the art of jewellery, as seen in this ring with the lamb resting below the willow tree. Symbolism now took the place of direct statements of love written inside a ring, or mortality being displayed through the overt memento mori visage of decay and death.
This ring has all the perfect symbols of mourning for a child. Simplicity in the lamb, a source of vulnerability and youth, resting below the weeping willow requires nothing further to depict the grief of an untimely death. In this serene scenario, Neoclassicism is perfectly represented.
The rise to prominence of white enamel in mourning jewelry would become the standard for the next thirty years of the 18th century. The previously-elaborate, twisted ribbon shape is now a simple band with the inscription inlaid; “Peggy Pine OB: 30 June 1776 AE: 9 Yrs”. The curved, inner roll to the interior of the band remains from the 1720s, although this would eventually thin out and create wider shoulders in ring designs.
Anachronisms in jewellery are definitive only if there is a clear moment of change. To simply suggest that a style changed over night would invalidate cultures and communities that still retain an existing style. Older members of the community might maintain their heritage in their fashion and not follow the trend of the younger generations. Financially, it is also a burden for a time when many of the middle and lower classes could not afford new dresses and simply tailored or dyed their dress to match the occasion. In jewellery symbolism, this ring maintains the symbols that were typical forty years earlier. Countering this, the construction and setting of the memento mori skull and crossbones on the plinth are purely Neoclassical. Hair is crushed into the paint to achieve the three dimensional effect in the sepia toned colour. This is seen in the rougher texture in the plinth as well.
Painted on the ivory disc are the words ‘tempus fugit’ (or ‘time flies). The winged hourglass reveals the swift passage (of time and the brief twenty years of the deceased’s life). Two cypress trees, in colour, flank the overhang of the weeping willow’s branches and perfectly frame the piece. The ring’s otherwise serene scenario is surprisingly arrested by its memento mori usage. Its infusion of passion towards the subject cannot be avoided, as even its construction is bespoke. The ring is larger than that which could be worn on a thumb, indicating that it may be for a male or designed to be worn over the gloves.
Band construction remains consistent with the 1776 ring, but there is not a great deal of time between the two. The shape of Neoclassical jewels evolved over an approximately-20 year period, but by the 1780s, the oval bezel, convex reverse and rolled inner band was the most typical form of construction. A ring of this sort, pre-constructed by a goldsmith and then amended in the painted design, was the common way of retailing Neoclassical designs. Paintings on ivory were typically standardised and it is not difficult to discover jewels that were amended. Those with different coloured sepias and awkward inscriptions failed to honour the balance of the original design. Jewels such as these required marketing, and travelling miniaturists could display a catalogue of work to chose from, along with prices.
Neoclassical jewels are known for their higher, north-to-south, ‘navette’ shape. This stickpin shows the progression of the shape, from the earlier oval style. Seen in the symbolism, the white enamel balances with the stark scene of the mourning woman, leaning on plinth, looking at the urn with sadness. The ‘gone to bliss’ sentiment was one that could be tailored on a jewel, or ordered directly. These are the areas on a Neoclassical jewel to look out for to see what was designed and what was bespoke.
Made for a 17 year old male, John English, this stickpin is curious in the design of the female character. She wears the high waist, short sleeves and deep necked dress typical of the mid 1780s. It is fashionable, without being a literal image of classical Greco-Roman fashion. Such designs, often made for children, might feature a subject, such as the parent, painted directly into the jewel. Portrait miniatures grew in popularity as schools trained more artists and miniaturists traveled for business. The face is to a classical style, with the straight nose and classical features.
As with the previous jewel, this piece features a depiction of a contemporary person in-situ. This gentleman wears a powdered wig, day coat, breeches and shoes, a formal, yet comfortable ensemble for the time. Male characters in Neoclassical jewels are rare. As the accepted representation of domesticity and the family unit, women were most commonly used to depict the loss of a loved one. Male characters tend to be very personal and closer to the miniature portrait in design, which is why even the body language of the character leaning against the oversized urn and clutching a handkerchief is honest to the wearer’s true appearance.
More interesting about this particular ring is that the subject was 83 at the time of death. A high age of mortality, but one that can distinguish wealth to live so long. At this age and to be considered virginal is also unusual, but not uncommon. Clearly, there’s a great sentimentality and familial bond exists in this piece.
Jewels of Purity
Conventions of white in jewellery and its use continued through the 19th century, but was greatly marginalised post 1820. The rise in popularity of the Gothic Revival style to conform mainstream jewellery and dominate the Neoclassical styles led to black enamel to be presented in bolder mourning bands with larger ‘In Memory Of’ lettering. White enamel was used in the place of black enamel in some instances, but not to the level that it has previously been.
By the mid century, white enamel was used as a secondary colour with black, typically in lettering of the standard mourning sentiments, such as ‘In Memory Of’ and ‘Not Lost But Gone Before’. High production levels of these jewels led to the symbolism of white being marginalised, as cheaper jewels led to greater volumes and easier access for many levels of society. With rings, lockets and brooches with standardised colours and lettering, the young could have the same jewel as an older, or married, person. White enamel, black enamel and various Victorian symbols represented in the jewel’s inlay made the sentimentality more agnostic.
It is a testament to the sentimentality of humanity that decides what a symbol means. Beyond popular fashion or a thought permeated through culture by a governing body, the simplicity of colour is intrinsically understood for its values of life and death just from our own behaviour. White in mourning jewels had a specific function and one that could immediately be recognised. In the examples seen, the evolution of modern jewellery through popular styles of art had defined the overall construction of a jewel, but the way in which colour dominated its meaning eclipsed this style and made it a truly personal item for a statement of grief.