Mourning jewelry – Royal mourning ring – Memorial ring – Nelson ring – Memento mori

Mourning jewelry

Various articles of jewelry worn in memory of a deceased person during periods of mourning, the styles of which underwent changes from the impersonalized Memento mori jewelry of the Middle Ages and the 16th and early 17th centuries to the specifically commemorative pieces of the late 17th century and onwards. Throughout the period such jewelry preserving hair of the deceased was popular, and in the 19th century jewelry was made of such hair.

The jewelry was decorated with sentimental motifs from the Romantic period of the late 18th century onwards; frequent motifs were a Grecian maid bending over an urn, a weeping willow, or a broken column.
The articles so worn included brooches and pendants, often ornamented with pearls or amethysts, but sometimes with diamonds or paste; but the principal articles of mourning jewelry were mourning ring.

Such pieces were especially worn in the Victorian era after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when they were generally made of jet (or cheaper black glass) in sombre styles.

Memento mori

Literally, remember you must die. A motif used as decoration on various articles in the form of a reminder of mortality, e.g. as a coffin, a death’s-head or a skeleton. Such pieces were not in remembrance of a departed person, but were an abstract warning of death especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.

They include finger rings, brooches, enseignes, pendants, watch cases, pomanders, etc. The articles were usually made of gold with black enamelled motifs or set with gemstones.

Mourning (or memorial) ring

A type of finger ring that was worn in memory of a deceased person. Originally in the Middle Ages rings of the deceased were given to and worn by relatives and friends, but when this proved insufficient in number or the values of owned rings varied too much, the custom developed from the 15th to the 17th centuries of providing in a will that a number of identical and relatively inexpensive rings (with the price sometimes stipulated) be made and donated to mourners.

Many of such rings were of the Memento mori style, but in the 17th and 18th centuries special forms were developed. Some had the interior of the hoop engraved with the name and dates of the deceased and the exterior enamelled in black to depict a skeleton or a foliage pattern.

Other examples had the dates of the birth and death of the deceased inscribed on the outside of the shank (the latter date did not necessarily indicate the date of the making of the ring, as sometimes such dates were added to rings formerly belonging to the deceased).

The bezel of some mourning rings was set with a crystal over the initials of the deceased made in gold thread over a ground of silk or hair.

After c. 1770 a lock of hair, a portrait or an ename1led mourning motif (an urn, weeping willow or broken column) was set under a crystal in the bezel. Some such rings were made in marquise shape decorated with seed pearls, and were given by the male mourners to their wives to be generally worn.

In the early 19th century some such rings were set with small gemstones, or black or violet enamelling was added to a gem-set ring owned by the deceased. In the late 19th century mourning rings ceased to be worn by the upper classes, but continued to be mass-produced, some set with jet or with a photograph in the bezel.

Mourning jewelry Royal mourning ring Memorial ring Nelson ring Memento mori ring

Royal mourning ring

A type of mourning ring originally made and worn in England in memory of a deceased Sovereign and later of a member of the Royal Family. Such rings were first made for Mary II (d. 1694) and then her husband William III (d. 1702).

Inexpensive mourning rings were made for George I (d. 1727) and George II (d. 1760), and thereafter for most of the members of the Royal Family who died in the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the last was made by Queen Victoria following the death of Prince Albert (1861).

Nelson ring

A type of mourning ring made and distributed upon the death of Admiral Lord Nelson in 1805, having some appropriate decoration. One important example is a plain gold band having a black enamelled oval bezel decorated with a viscount’s coronet above an N and a ducal crown above a B (for Bronte, the dukedom in Sicily that he accepted from King Ferdinand of Sicily), below which is inscribed ‘Trafalgar’; the wide hoop is engraved outside with a Latin motto and inside with an obituary inscription.