Time Takes a Toll on this Dying Art
Public mourning has been a tradition since the 1600s, beginning with the execution of Charles I. It gained its greatest popularity in the 1800s, which can be traced to two catalysts; the American Civil War and the death of Prince Albert.

Very early examples of mourning jewelry were in the form of a head or skull enameled in black & white. After the Civil War it was considered a status symbol to wear mourning rings. In the early 18th century fine scrolled rings were made with white enamel when mourning a single person and black and white for a married person. Mourning the deceased was a sign of respect, particularly for the bourgeois for whom it was an indication of position in society- the grander the funeral, the better the man.

Most mourning jewelry seen today is represented by a loved one's hair, braided and set under thin pieces of glass or crystal and it usually has the birth and death dates inscribed on the piece of jewelry. Usually on the border of a brooch is a commemorative message in Gothic script such as "In memory of "

We also see braided hair in the form of necklaces, earrings, bracelets and watch fobs, woven from the hair of the deceased. Often a watch chain would be woven from the deceased mother's hair and presented by the children to their father on a special occasion. Pearls were often used in mourning jewelry to represent tear drops.

Hair jewelry, once ignored and inexpensive, is finally achieving the recognition it deserves as a lost craft which required a tremendous investment of time. Quality workmanship, which was then taken for granted, is found only in top quality jewelry today, if at all. Early jewelry was made to last and people owned less while wearing their few good things longer.

Unlike most other jewelry styles which appear periodically, hair jewelry will not make a showing again. The time and labor required to produce it does not make it a profitable item for mass production, or by devoted craftsmen, which assures that if we find it on the market today it is surely not a reproduction such as one might find with other antiques. -Cheryl Stewart

First published in the very first issue of the Antique Quarterly, 1983

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