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Victorian Sentimental & Mourning Jewellery

The majority of modern jewellery - not made by independent artists - is very simple in its appearance. A few design elements and motifs remain popular: for example, you'll often see hearts, infinity loops and crosses. In comparison the Victorians really loved symbolism and this manifested in their jewellery, used to convey sentiments of friendship, love, faith and mourning.

Some symbols persisted into the Edwardian era and beyond, others fell out of favour or are only occasionally revived in fashion. I was looking at graveyard and cemetery symbolism, and that led me to motifs used in mourning and memento jewellery. I soon found that symbolic representation of sentiments were everywhere in antique brooches, rings and necklaces. Some were familiar to me, e.g. horseshoes to represent luck, or the cross/anchor/heart trio for Faith, Hope and Charity. Others weren't, but they must have been obvious to the Victorians because of how widely they were used.

I've been collecting pieces for a while now, mostly antique brooches as they are fairly unfashionable right now and relatively inexpensive. I have a few lockets and lapel pins too. About half my collection is probably mourning jewellery, the others were more likely sweetheart gifts. Some themes appear exclusively in the mourning items, while the more romantic symbols are universal. The romantic icons of buckled belts/garters, Ivy leaves, coiled snakes and knots; all of these translate roughly into sentiments of fidelity and everlasting love. Their symbolism is all about binding tightly, and never-ending loops. The 'Mizpah' quote (asking God to observe a bond between separated people), forget-me-nots and Lily of the Valley (a return to happiness) appear in the context of a brief separation from a loved one as much as in memory of them after death. Glazed compartments for holding a picture or a keepsake lock of hair were common too.

Some mourning brooches I have explicitly state 'In Memory Of', often with a photo/hair compartment. They are further identified due to their use of black enamel, black onyx/glass or bullseye agate. Seed pearls were sometimes used to represent tears. I remember being fascinated by one brooch my friend had, years ago, before I knew anything about them. From what I've seen, it's possible to find ones made of gold, although most used a cheaper rolled gold or Pinchbeck material. Also, the earlier brooches were more florid with difficult-to-read gothic lettering. Over time, the design and text became pared back and clearer. Other symbols that mark out mourning jewellery are ones like broken columns, inverted torches: symbols also seen in graveyards and cemeteries, reflecting on a life cut short or the immortality of the soul. The York Ghost Merchants, York reference the inverted torch in their logo.

One of my favourite mourning brooches bears a panel with a carved willow and urn image, a frequently seen motif since at least Georgian times. I may have one or two late Georgian bits, but the majority are Victorian. Georgian mourning jewellery frequently featured sepia willow and urn pictures, including tiny text details to identify the deceased. These - and mourning rings from the 19th century - are out of my price range as a casual collector, but I've seen many examples online. The book Mourning Art and Jewelry by Maureen DeLorme is also a wonderful reference on the subject.

Some pieces of Victorian mourning jewellery were entirely black, made out of Whitby Jet or one of its simulants. I am lucky to have one verified high quality Jet brooch in my collection, skillfully carved with a cross and Lily of the Valley in relief. As I wrote on my Whitby Jet article, Jet is heavily associated with mourning. Victorian customs dictated that jewellery (and clothes) worn during the mourning periods must be black. However, Jet was sometimes fashionable in its own right, and also used for Whitby souvenirs. Not all Jet jewellery was intended for mourning, and it's only really indisputable when there's an inscription or the IMO - in memory of - monogram is present in the design. I have two large IMO brooches which I think are likely Jet.

I really like the interlinked initials of Victorian monograms. Of course, people's actual initials are combined, but another really popular monogram is AEI - or Amnity, Eternity, Infinity - signifying endless friendship or love. This is perhaps my favourite sentimental symbol of all the ones I have looked at. It's another of those universal ones, equally suitable for mourning or for celebrating living relationships. I have a few examples of AEI jewellery now, mostly lockets, each presenting the letters differently.

I'm actively wearing a couple of the large AEI silver lockets; they were empty when I bought them so I've added pictures of my family. It feels strange but nice to wear items well over 100 years old. I feel lucky to have found them, and hopefully they'll survive for future generations. My brooches only have simple C-clasps due to their age, so they have to be worn cautiously. I have them arranged in a glass-topped display case for now.

Once you start looking for sentimental symbols in antique jewellery, you'll spot them all the time. If you can find some affordable pieces you'll be able to wear a little bit of history, and we all know re-use is good for the planet.