Memento Mori vs Mourning – Victorians, Jewellery, and Death

Memento Mori vs Mourning - Victorians, Jewellery, and Death

Victorian memento mori jewellery celebrated life. Victorian mourning jewellery was focused solely on death. Once you know, you know.

The Victorians committed themselves deeply to rituals relating to death. Jewellery – both Memento mori jewellery and mourning jewellery – played a substantial role in that. Victorians knew how to make mourning an aesthetic process, and to a great extent shaped the Gothic aesthetic of today.

Tread carefully, now, for there were actually two different genres of Victorian jewellery surrounding death. Morning jewellery and memento mori jewellery may sound similar, but they’re distinctly different in their purpose.

Memento mori and mourning jewellery – what’s the difference?

Memento mori jewellery – from the Latin for  ‘remember death’ – is intended to celebrate life.

During the Victorian era, memento mori jewellery was used to highlight the fact that everyone will eventually die. It was also specifically used to encourage people to enjoy life while they lived it.

Many wedding rings at this time actually featured etchings of ‘memento mori’ on the inside of the band, reminding the young couple to relish what lay ahead of them, keeping the final destination in mind.

Victorian mourning jewellery was solely used to express grief over bereavement.

Mourning jewellery, however, was almost the opposite of memento mori jewellery. When a loved one died in the Victorian period, mourning jewellery was one of the most popular ways to remember them by.

Mourning as a process was taken very seriously by the Victorians. This high level of commitment was further impacted by the example set by Queen Victoria who, on the death of Prince Albert, wore black for the rest of her life.

Using mourning jewellery to express one’s sorrow to the world was a practice based solely on grief, rather than celebrating life.

Whether they were reminding themselves to live life right, or using their jewellery to pay tribute to someone they loved dearly, the Victorians knew what they were doing when it came to embracing death.

Memento Mori jewellery motifs: Think ‘skulls’.

The visual differences between memento mori jewellery and mourning jewellery can be a blurred line at times. Between the skulls, etched phrases, and dark colours, it’s important to note key differences in order to make differentiating a little easier.

Frequently used themes and motifs in memento mori jewellery include: skulls, skulls, and skulls.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but the key to discerning between the two genres of jewellery is mostly in the skulls. While mourning jewellery is a serious affair, memento mori jewellery can afford to be a little more ‘fun’. Memento mori is intended to remind you of the inherent non-permanence of life, so skulls are a frequently recurring visual element.

Mourning jewellery and hair keepsakes

Common materials used in mourning jewellery are black enamel, onyx, and agate. Dark colours – as you might expect – are at the core of good mourning jewellery.

A key feature of a lot of mourning jewellery that you might not be familiar with, however, is hair.

Hair from the recently deceased was often styled and placed in lockets, rings, and bracelets. Sometimes, these stylings were elaborate twirls and twists. At other times, they were plaits placed within the jewellery.

On occasion, the hair was woven into jewellery itself, usually in the form of rope-like bracelets.

A very popular choice for styling hair into mourning jewellery was to use it to spell out the initials of the deceased.

Keeping this jewellery close was a respectful way of showing that mourning was very much still in process.

Some examples of Victorian mourning jewellery featuring hair…

From top to bottom, we have:

  • A mourning brooch featuring a braid of hair encased in the reverse of the brooch
  • A black enamel mourning ring, holding a braid of hair behind the central casing
  • An agate and enamel memorial pendant, featuring a stylised swirl of hair on the reverse of the gold locket.

The ring at the centre of this fabulous antique line up also features golden decoration around the shank that spells out: IN MEMORY OF. What speaks more deeply of gothic love than taking your dead loved ones’ hair and using it in your daily attire?

Victorian mourning jewellery did, fortunately, have alternatives to hair.

Honestly, though. What if you don’t like hair? Or don’t, for any reason, wish to use it in mourning attire?

If hairy jewellery didn’t appeal, the Victorians had alternative traditions for mourning jewellery.

Victorian rope jewellery

Rope was used often to spell out initials, as it is in this pearl brooch. Framed by pearls all around, the initials of the deceased are on clear display.

A lot of people think of pearls when they think of Victorian jewellery, so it’s pleasing to see this somewhat morbid twist on that traditional imagery.

Victorian mourning jewellery sets

If a Victorian wished to show that they could mourn bigger and better than anyone else, they would opt for entire mourning jewellery sets. Full mourning sets were very popular among the well-heeled in the Victorian era.

The typical elements of a full mourning jewellery set – or suite – were:

  • A necklace
  • A bracelet
  • One pair of earrings
  • A brooch.

A ring could be included in this suite, but was typically left out if all the other elements were present.

The materials used in mourning sets absolutely had to be dark, representing the wearer’s despair. The example above makes use of banded agate, a stunningly dark stone featuring a single white strip down each stone’s centre.

This jewellery suite was made in the 1860s, making it an early example of the more ostentatious side of the Victorian approach to death. Donning an entire set was a sure way to really be seen to be mourning by all those around you.

In the Victorian era, a period of mourning would last well beyond the funeral. The owner of this suite would have worn dark colours and dark jewellery for months – sometimes even years – to acknowledge their loss.

Today, wearing dark clothes and dark jewellery is a much-beloved aesthetic (that can also hold personal meaning). When Victorians dressed in black from head to toe, it specifically meant that another’s death was on their mind and would most likely remain so for years to come.