Mourning jewellery is a physical connection between people. Be it from the wearer to the deceased, it also connects the wearers of these jewels together in a shared feeling of grief. Jewels were produced in volume, being made for for families and friends. Since the rise of the merchant class in the Middle Ages, access to wealth allowed for artisans to produce fashionable items to promote status in society. Mourning jewellery and their exploitation begin where the nexus of grief and wealth collide.
Generally, this comes from a top-down level to introduce the gifting of tokens and sustain it as part of the cultural lexicon. An early example of this is in the bequest of Richard II (1366-1400), “who, by his testament, left a gold ring to each of the nine executors, five of whom were bishops and four great nobles.” Having a monarch as the source of the gifting of mourning jewellery upon their demise is a practice that is still not easily attainable under an aristocratic level. It is looking into the bequeathments of the middle classes and the rising wealth of the late 16th and 17th centuries which cemented the tokens of love, grief and memory in the modern mind.
Noted diarist, Samuel Pepys, bequeathed 123 rings upon his death in 1703. These rings were graded into three classes and given out according to proximity of friendship and social status. With the below reference, we see how a mourning ring being given out at a funeral became an accepted practice. Pepys wrote in his diary:
“This day my Lady Batten and my wife were at the burial of a daughter of Sir John Cawson’s and had rings for themselves and their husbands.” – July 3, 1661
Here, the familial aspect of giving the rings defined not only the proximity of the deceased to the loved one, but also friendship status. That people could afford these jewels is even more remarkable, given that producing bespoke rings in volume was not as easy a task as it was in the 19th century, following the use lower grade alloys and machinery development during the Industrial Revolution,
Famously, William Shakespeare’s will, dated March 25, “1616, rings were bequeathed to Hamlett Sadler, William Reynoldes, Anthony Nash and John Nash, his fellow townsmen, as well as to three actors, Burbage, Heming and Condell, who had the privilege of ” creating ” parts in the greatest dramas ever written. The sum of 26s Sd is appropriated for each of these rings, about $6.50 of our money.”- Kunz, George Frederick, 1856-1932.
Putting this cost into context is important when looking at the remarkable collection of three rings, dedicated to:
“John Rose aged 8 years, full of health and Promise, snatched in one moment from his afflicted Parents and relations by falling from a Pony. Augt 18th 1815.”
John Rose, an eight year old died and these rings represent the short and tragic death, which one can only assume are the collected rings of the family, due to their various sizes. Having an inscription of such detail becomes the true value of these rings, as they are simply not about the status of giving or the quality of their artistry, these are tokens of grief that act as a wearable tombstone for John. Statements such as ‘full of health and promise’ are clear statements of grief and loss, which would have been specified by the family, ensuring that the message is carried by the wearer and passed down through time.
It is a great insight into the status of family relationships during the 1815 period. This was a time that had seen dramatic instability during the Napoleonic Wars, European instability, travel and colonisation, along with challenge from the independent Americas. Soldiers going off to war popularised the giving and dissemination of love tokens as mementoes of their travel across the continent. Having a token of love during these times was a precious keepsake and is an artefact that speaks to family love for the time. Life wasn’t cheap and it certainly had an affect on those who mourned the loss of a loved one, regardless of the issues of the world around. These parents were ‘affected’ by the sudden and tragic loss.
Even more humanising about these rings is that the child fell from a pony, which would be a seemingly benign and natural activity to do for a child of the day. Humanising fashion in such a way creates stability for a political and cultural system, as it speaks to the global values of the society. When these values are spread locally and internationally, they are held with a certain pride. Internally, the industrial revolution had grown the middle class and promoted internal transit and messaging. Class consciousness that isn’t overwhelming the above classes, but aspiring to them is a way to subvert revolution.
Standardisation of design in the 1810-20 period greatly reduced the size of mourning jewels. There are factors that caused this, as the Napoleonic Wars had depleted much of the European gold reserves, so goldsmiths had to be smart in their designs and maximise what gold they could. As can be seen in this brooch from 1806, the grand styles of bold and simple geometric lines changed the larger and more oval styles used at the height of Neoclassicism. It’s an unassuming style, but it is very defined by its time.
It takes away from the elaborate opulence of painted allegorical messages – a woman weeping next to a tomb in Neoclassical garments, with an urn and a willow tree painted in sepia tones. The message at the beginning of the early 19th century became defined in the use of colour, enamel and gems. Gems took on their own meanings. Following aristocratic looting during the French Reign of Terror (1793-4), gems flooded the European market and dropped the value, allowing fine jewellers to create new designs. Foil paste approximations, seen in ‘DEAREST’ and ‘REGARD’ rings, mimicked the colours of actual gems, as their popularity and use soared.
What is most precious about this ring is that it has something within that is more precious than any gem. It has the blonde hair of John Rose placed in the most prominent area of bezel, under glass. Surrounding this, the black band of enamel signifies death and the white, purity and innocence. These rings are a family together, as they were in 1815, carrying the message of afflicted parents that resonates as loudly today as it did over two hundred years ago.