Rings 10.03.2014

French Neoclassical Sepia/Hair Mourning Ring

French Neoclasscal Sepia Mourning Ring

1788; the colonisation of Australia, South Carolina ratifies the United States constitution to become the seventh state, the first edition of The Times and the lead in to the French Revolution of 1789. It was a year that effectively made a statement as to which way the world would be defined and also the year that this ring was created. Growing industry and demand for mourning jewels in the 1780s saw elements of standardisation become the common representation of death in jewellery and art. This was so prolific that miniaturists would pre-design a miniature (to be set in a ring, pendant, bracelet or other jewel) and tailor it to the buyer. As these symbols were common and standardisation was typical, this does not mean that all jewels were created the same. In today’s jewel, we see all the separate elements of the Neoclassical period, the previous symbols of memento mori and many representations of French style from the late 18th century before the French Revolution.

Reflective of earlier and status, the use of “Reste Preciely” (“Reste Precieux” /precious remains) introduces a bespoke statement of the desecration of the body, enhancing the memento mori elements which make up the ring. The words are placed underground in the image, under where the tombstone/plinth rests. Literally, the statement is an indicator to the body itself. In the use of the language, which is crudely written at the bottom of the ring, the very nature of the ring is bought back to middle French and Latin inscriptions on poesy rings. Posey rings were made for personal sentimental gifts between loved ones and had very bespoke phonetic English, Latin or French sentiments written on the inside.

French 1788 sepia hair mourning ring

This ring was made with the assumed hair of the loved one being chopped and glued/painted onto the surface, which makes it so very special. Let’s look to all the separate elements of the symbolism and then into the nature of fashion in the 18th century to find out why this ring is so important.

Garland & Wreath
In this ring, the urn is a literal representation of the loved one who had passed on. The remains of the dedicated person are under ground, but the urn with the symbolism flanking either side and adorned by the wreath is there to show us that the person who is mourning them are quite specific about their life being cut short and that there is honour, victory and redemption between them.


In this piece from a two years earlier, when the Neoclassical movement had been fully engrained in the cultural psyche, the wreath is being placed by the dove, without the cherub, yet the elements are perfectly designed with the assurance that isn’t reflected within the sepia ring. From a design perspective, this element was used enough that a miniature painted could produce enough of these to sell to a growing consumer base without having to tailor its surrounding elements.

Crown, Hearts, Column

The element of the wreath to show that the love between the two was an honour and a victory merged more towards a modern sentiment, as can be seen in the above ‘In Spite of Envy’ clasp. This is a literal crown and stands away from its classical roots. Immortality and its influence upon the love of the two is another factor which is established, as the glory of the love that is bequeathed will never fail or falter.

Extinguished Torch & Scythe
The flame of life is the ignition which sparks the very nature of a loving relationship and defines the self in the world. When the torch is lit, the life burns bright and when it is extinguished, the flame and the life have burnt out. When combined with the scythe, this is a dedicated statement to a life cut short and not completely fulfilled.

The torch being placed to cross-connect with the scythe in this scenario is quite an unusual one. Whomever created the ring understood the nature of popular sentimental designs, many of which developed into their maturity during the 1780s, by balancing the Neoclassical and popular motifs with these literal funerary elements that had been popular since the early modern period in jewels. It is a memento mori motif that has once again been blended with the Neoclassical.

Memento Mori Ring

Memento Mori Ring (note torch)

As can be seen in the above ring from 1698, the use of the torch is a superb element of anachronism that enhances the nature of the ring. Using the skull and crossbones to denote death is the simple passage of representing death in any jewel, but using the peripheral elements makes the ring truly become individual in its statement. Much of this can be seen in its construction, with the roughly chopped hair painted onto the ivory. There was no way to easily standardise this form of design, rather it had to be bespoke for the person who had commissioned it.

Using the scythe as an element in this ring is a call back to the anachronistic elements of the memento mori period. It is a clear denotation of death which is rendered in a proportion that does not show any standardisation for the ring’s design. Placed at the rear of the plinth, the scythe shows a life cut short (balancing with the extinguished torch). Clearly a symbol used for its meaning, it does not balance with the other elements in the scenario, but rather enhances the message of what the ring is trying to convey.

The scythe itself is associated with the Grim Reaper for its literal depiction of harvesting the souls. When seen in context of this ring with the urn in the foreground, it connects with the extinguished life to present the scenario of the life cut short and the flame of life burnt out.

Urn & Plinth
Here, the urn and plinth are the most important elements within the jewel itself. This ring was dedicated to a person with the initials ‘SH’ and here is where their allegorical body lay. Within the urn or under ground, this ring is here to depict the loss of ’SH’ to the wearer and to the world. Most importantly, a viewer must appreciate the chopped and crushed hair to form the urn. There is careful shadow from the right of the ring and a definitive light source to the left. The outline was painted, but the interior is obvious in its use of hair with the crude lid of the urn being several pieces of hair cut and glued to the surface. It is in the urn that the only obvious signs of any pre-design to the jewel, as the template of the sketch can be seen in its outline.

Underneath, the plinth, or stone, states “Obiit 29 Ianv: 1788” (29 January 1788), which doubles for a tombstone in the ring. Its statement of death is what would be written on a physical tombstone and is represented here. What is most remarkable about these elements are that the scene is literal and real. There’s no esoteric concept of what death is, or that the final journey into the afterlife is a gentle passage carried forward by angels or softly mourned next to the tomb. This life was cut short and this is where the body remains. Considering that it is nearly thirty years since these elements began to fall from fashion, the person who had commissioned this ring had very specific beliefs about life and death.

Usage of the urn had never wavered, however. Cremation of the body and the collection of ashes in the urn is a method that survived ancient civilisations well into the Dark Ages. The name itself is derived from the Latin ‘uro’, meaning ‘to burn’, so no matter what the shape of the vessel the title was always ‘urn’. This is a concept that never left the mainstream mind and its uptake as a Neoclassical symbol and its consistency as a funerary motif is simply a natural evolution for the urn’s depictions.

While burial became the more popular method of interment, the urn still retained its status as a symbol of death, testifying the death/decay of the body and into dust and the departed spirit resting with god.

Draped urns are another variation of the popular symbol in the Neoclassical period. The draped urn itself often denotes the death of an older person, however, the drapery is often a constant when in relation to death. Interpretations of this can be when the shroud drapery denotes the departure of the soul towards heaven in relation to the shroud over the body, the drape is the partition between life and death or that it is guarding the sacred contents of the urn itself. In jewellery, finding the urn draped or undraped is quite common, but why is it so?

urn ring

Navette Shaped Ring

The urn is a motif that reached incredible heights of popularity in Neoclassicism due to its interpretation from the original classical depictions. It was a motif that was easily lifted from its source and fulfilled all the classical resonance that a revival period needed to convey the style of its respective era. With the focus back upon the personal nature of mourning and the departure of the direct link towards god, death itself became something worn prominently in mainstream fashion. The urn was a perfect way to show this, draped or undraped. Sitting on top of a plinth, column or tomb, the urn is often the central focus of the mourning depiction. The mourning character in the depiction (male or female) is often interacting with the urn in some way, either leaning against it weeping, sitting near it, standing beside it or looking at it directly. This links the personal nature of mourning from the person into the jewel itself. The mourner is the wearer or the person who created the dedication and the urn represents the loved one. Consider that; there’s a direct link in methodology of the urn to the self, this is why the urn is the central motif and not the mourner.

Consider that when looking at a brooch, ring, bracelet clasp, pendant or any other peripheral from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. The urn is the concept that should draw the eye and take precedence over everything else.

18th Century Mourning MIniature with Contemporary Woman

The symbol disappeared soon after the first quarter 19th century in mourning jewels, but was retained within funerary art. The Gothic Revival period played a key role in reverting society back to more ‘traditional’ values. Using a direct relation to the body in the urn conflicts with the burial/god connection which was part of the social understanding of life and death, that Christian values returned to a life under god.

You can find the urn in use to around the 1820s, but many of the latter uses in jewels are anachronistic in the same way that memento mori would have been during the late 18th century. However, in funerary, the urn was still retained and is to this very day. In fact, its use in architecture in the latter 19th century / early 20th century was quite typical, but it had largely disappeared as a motif to represent the self in mourning.

A willow often borders a mourning jewel in the Neoclassical period. Having the weeping willow become a border to a mourning scenario amplifies the message of the sadness and also maintains an elegant level of style for the scene. Note how the willow isn’t attached to the edge of the border, due to the octagonal shape of the ring, and how it is cleverly painted in the background of the scene. It’s pushing out the other symbols in the ring, which leap out at the viewer, ensuring that the sentiment of the ring isn’t lost in complete allegory. A life was cut short and this scene ensures that this is prominently displayed.

Weeping WIllow, Navette Shape Mourning Brooch

Weeping Willow, Navette Shape

The above example clearly states what the expectations of a ‘navette shaped mourning brooch’ should be. The tall, north to south design with the

Late 18th Century Style
Beyond its overall Neoclassical style, this ring needs to be appreciated for its shape, design and how that integrated into popular society of the time. Octagonal shapes were more popular in rings from the European Continent at the time, while the navette or oval shapes were more popular in Britain and America.

Intaglio French Memento Mori Ring

The above ring from the period of Louis XIV shares the same design of its shape (but not construction), dating to around ninety years before the ‘SH’ ring was created. Its similar style is evident in the shape of the bezel, which in this case offers the memento mori intaglio carnelian. Finding examples of the octagonal shape from the European Continent isn’t difficult, with much of the mourning rings that were created in France or the German region at the time using this shape, particularly where Protestant values led to mourning rings depicting allegorical statements of death.

French 1788 sepia hair mourning ring

Details to the shoulders are equally elegant, with the curved band being mostly hidden from sight by a viewer. Care was taken in its creation, however this style was popular in the 1770-1790 period. In the ring below, note the detail to the shoulders for a similar style:

Mother of pearl, urn, three dimensional hair mourning ring 1779

Finally, the fashion of the time was the grand statement with which the ring was worn. Why was sentimentality so united with fashion that a ring with hair in a display so large accommodated by society?

Post 1760, the Neoclassical movement had crept into the previously fashionable Rococo style of costume fabrics. Elaborate Rococo floral motifs moved to simple stripes or smaller motifs. Side hoops were discarded and lighter silks and cotton was introduced, with much influence being from the aristocracy. Marie Antoinette was painted in La reine en gaulle, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783, introducing a new style that reflected the peasantry, showing a muslin chemise, straw hat and belt at the waist.

Marie Antoinette, La reine en gaulle, 1783

Marie Antoinette, La reine en gaulle, 1783

The 18th century welcomed in greater convention for mourning fashion and began to see the rise of the mourning industry. This became so much so that mourning dress was becoming desirable and the difference between mourning and non mourning dress was narrowing. Much of the fashion in this century was dictated by the fabric rather than the cut, and the silk industries in France and England held major influence on mourning wear because of this. It was Ordre Chronologique des Deuils de la Cour, (1765) where details of Court mourning in France were published, giving precise tailoring instructions. From their first days in mourning, men were permitted to appear in Court, unless it was after the death of a parent from whom they had received inheritance.

Widows had to wait one year and six weeks, with the first six months in black wool. Lord Chamberlain and Earl Marshall both ordered shorter periods of mourning in France and England respectively.

As in the 17th century, black and plain were required. Bombazine dresses trimmed in black crape, black silk hoods and plain white linen were worn with black shammy leather shoes, glove and crape fans. Jewellery was not permitted. Second mourning consisted of black dresses, trimmed with fringed or plain linen, white gloves, black or white shoes, fans and tippets and white necklaces and earrings as necessary. Grey lusterings, tabbies and damasks were acceptable for less formal occasions.

Albina, 1791 (a young woman in mourning dress)

Albina, 1791 (a young woman in mourning dress)

Ordre Chronologique des Deuils de la Cour was specific and influential enough to decide upon women’s fashions, as. It was specific enough to specify that; ‘dress was cut with a train and turned back with a braid attached to the side of the skirt, which was pulled through the pockets.’ This is where the overskirt is turned to the back and lifted up, revealing the petticoat underneath, called; robe retrousee dans les poche, the centre front robings were joined with hooks or ribbons. Cuffs were cut with one fold and deep hems, the waist was held in place by a crape belt that was tied on. This left two ends hanging down to the hem of the skirt.

A woman’s accessories were a crape shawl, gloves, shoes with metallic bronzed buckles, a black woollen muff and a black crape fan. Head dresses of black crape and white batiste were referenced. For much of the century, however, ‘paniers’ were fashionable, but in the French style, with loose pleating falling from the shoulders to the back. The English manner of this was with the back pleats stitched down as far as the waistline. Also popular were lace ruffles at the neck and the cuff, embroidered stomachers, silver gilt lace, appliqué work and small aprons. None of these were permitted for mourning wear. Mourning wear for women still remained consistent in that it remained plain, black or sometimes white fabric.

Mrs Merry in the Character of Calista, 1792

Mrs Merry in the Character of Calista, 1792


French 1788 sepia hair mourning ring

Now we have a clear understanding about why this ring was created and the context with which it was worn. This ring predates massive social and political change throughout the world, but on its own, it speaks to the very nature of love between two people. It was worn for its reason to constantly remind the wearer of the person whose life was cut short. During the 1780s, the Neoclassical period was spurred on by the Enlightenment and amplified in physical objects by the Industrial Revolution. Messages within art could be conveyed across political borders with greater speed in a time when mortality rates were high and education led to challenging thought. This ring has it all, encapsulated within its symbolism. It does not conform to any one style, but rather speaks to the nature of the wearer and their own sensibilities for religious and political leanings. Anything beyond this we can consider supposition on our part, but as an artefact of life in  1788, this ring speaks volumes.

Courtesy: Sarah Nehama, British Museum