Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

For hundreds of years, people wore mourning jewelry to commemorate their dead loved ones. But what secrets about the past can you learn from these dark baubles made of diamonds, skeletons and bits of loved ones' hair.

We stumbled upon Erica Weiner's wondrous collection of mourning jewelry while window browsing through New York, and the collector and jewelry designer was kind enough to give us an education on the intricate history and secret meanings behind the jet-black jewelry that's been around since the 1600s (but saw a tremendous rise in popularity in the 1800s).

According to Weiner, "People started making memorial jewelry because there was no photography, and if your loved one died you wanted something as a touchstone to remember them every day." You could also get a painting made of your loved one, and later on there was a fad in "death photography" — but before photography came along, this was the main way that people remembered their departed loved ones. These items weren't limited to women, either; men could have memorial cufflinks or pocket watch fobs with parts of the deceased person's hair braided in (image below).

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Men's watch with a hair braided FOB Image via ebay.

As far as materials go, black enamel is the hallmark of most mourning pieces. But different metals and gems have different meanings. Weiner elaborated that white enamel means the deceased was a woman who died unmarried and a virgin. Pearls would indicate the loss of a child.

Different colors represented different stages of grief. If you were observing traditional Victorian public mourning time, the necklace or ring could incorporate various colors that would match the changing period of mourning. It was permissible to wear mourning jewelry with other jewels. However, if you were following the strict Victorian mourning procedure, mourning jewelry was the only type of jewelry allowed for the first two to three years of "deep mourning." The beautiful jewelry would change with the times, eventually incorporating pictures.

The items would be worn by friends and family, by royalty. Queen Victoria, whose epic sadness over the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, popularized the tradition. And she wore her husband's morning ring for the rest of her life.

Here's a collection of some of the fascinating pieces with hidden secrets we discovered.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

According to Weiner, "This particular ring is sort of our prized possession in our mourning jewelry collection. It's unusual to find them with diamonds in them. This was for an older gentleman from 1734. He died when he was 60. And he and his family had clearly saved up to produce these for when he died. The more elaborate it was, the more money the family had." Oftentimes, the family would produce a number of memorial items to be handed out at the funeral as a token of remembrance.

Additional information at Erica Weiner. Photograph by Michelle Smith McLaughlin.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

A Momento Mori Skeletal Band. The ring is dated 1727 and features a full skeleton wrapped around the entire ring, which is absolutely gorgeous, and just a little macabre. According to Rowan & Rowan, the crown above the skeleton's skull represents that "death is the master of all." Below the figure's feet is a tablet with the words "Momento Mori" edged by symbols of the Passion. The bezel of the ring is in the shape gold coffin — and if you look through the stone you can see an additional skeleton INSIDE the coffin. That's two skeletons on one ring.

Images and and additional information at Rowan & Rowan.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Spotted on Erie Basin this ring features one of the most elaborate paintings we've ever seen this small. Created sometime in the late 1700s, what makes this ring special is the ship, which collectors say is uncommon among these types of items, which usually feature urns or willows (see below). The ship's presence on a ring like this represents the journey into the afterlife, while the beached anchor symbolizes hope for those the loved one left behind. And if you look closer you can see that the golden details on the ship were created out of tiny bits of hair. The deceased's hair was chopped up and used to paint with, and oftentimes incorporated into the piece of jewelry itself.

Images and additional information from Erie Basin.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

A Mourning Locket. Once photographs were introduced to the public, the combination of lockets and mourning jewelry was pretty obvious. This enamel locket on a banded agate bracelet was created sometime around the 1900s. The locket features lilies of the valley which was a common flower used in mourning jewelry as they symbolized the tears of the Virgin Mary. Since the locket is blue, one could speculate that this piece of jewelry was created for the final stage of mourning when darker colors (like blue, grey and purple) would be integrated back into the wardrobe.

Addition information at Erica Weiner. Photograph by Michelle Smith McLaughlin.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

An 1850s diamond ring with a coil of hair under crystal. The hair inside of this ring was from the deceased and would often be referred to as a "collar."

Images and additional information from Erie Basin.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

This middle finger ring contains the braided hair of a memorialized loved one. Weiner explained to us that back in the day, you had to be careful to whom you sent your deceased's hair for transforming the hair into jewelry or artwork or a wreath. Apparently there was a big scandal as some companies would replace damaged or difficult-to-manipulate hair with a stranger's hair, or even horse hair.

Image from Erica Weiner.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Weeping Willows and Urns were common images on mourning jewelry. This navette shaped ring has a hand painted scene with the message "Not Lost But Gone Before." The Bell And Bird speculates this ring is from 1760-1810.

Images and additional information from Bell And Bird.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Another example of an urn and weeping willow imagery being used in this Georgian-era ring. However, the leaves and branches of this weeping willow are made out of tiny pieces of hair. The ring was created in memory of J.S. Cowen, who (according to the inscription) died on February 10th, 1780 at age 65.

Image and information from Erie Basin.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

This super fancy piece of memorial jewelry has a band with the saying, "Drop the tear of sensibility on the grave of virtue," which is a testament to the virtue of the lost loved one, who in this case was named J R Wilmer and passed on January 7th 1804 at the age of 27. All this wrapped around a single old-cut diamond weighing half a carat. Impressive.

Additional information and image from Rowan & Rowan.

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

And on the flip side, you have a much more understated and common piece of mourning jewelry. This enamel ring still has the inscription inside which says "Joseph Watson, died 14 Feb., 1849 aged 80."

Addition information at Erica Weiner. Photograph by Michelle Smith McLaughlin.

And here's a collection of the mourning jewelry on display in Erica Weiner's store:

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

To see these gems for yourself, we suggest you head over to one of Erica Weiner's boutiques in Nolita, New York.