What are mourning rings?
Mourning rings were the most common form of early mourning jewelry. They were given to family members and close friends and were usually paid for through the estate of the deceased. These rings ranged from plain gold bands to rings set with diamonds, pearls, and miniature portraits on ivory. However, while the elaborateness of mourning rings varied they were all inscribed with the name, date of death, and age of the deceased. Sometimes haunting epitaphs such as “not lost but gone before,” “we must submit,” and “we’re his last” were included not only to remind the wearer of the departed but of their own mortality as well.
Miniature painting on ivory in mourning rings was popular during the late eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century. These rings often featured scenes with classical symbols and motifs, including funerary urns, women in classical dress, and weeping willows. The miniaturist often incorporated the deceased’s hair into the design by either pasting it to the surface or mixing it up into the paint.
Hair, a symbol of life, has been associated with death and funerals in many
cultures. From Egyptian tomb paintings to the small village of Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden hair plaiting became a
necessity for the town’s survival. A village woman who was skilled at hair
plaiting taught the craft to friends and relatives. Soon this small town of
1800 had as many as 300 hair workers. Because there was no market for hair
jewelry in the impoverished village, it was necessary for the hair workers to
take long journeys to sell their wares. Young girls would divide up into
teams of three or four and travel to a country in Europe, learn the language
and take their art with them.
Later on the craftwork also spread to Europe and the US. During the Civil War as
the soldiers left home to join the fight, they would leave a lock of hair with
their families. Upon the soldier’s death, the hair was often made into a
piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket. These were gold or black,
and were sometimes engraved with “In Memory Of” and the initials or names of
To keep it short, mourning rings were sentimental pieces, to commemorate the dead.
The VH Memorial Ring is an exquisite piece of mourning jewelry made in mid 19th century. Designed as a marquise-shape black enamel initial monogram panel and adorned with black enamel scroll shoulders, this beautiful mid Victorian memorial band is perfection. Hair is woven throughout the shank. The outside was designed in black enamel, which was a bold statement to wear during this era. Black enamel memorial bands were meant to be visible when they were worn.
A beautiful Victorian gold memorial band ring, The central black enamel band reads ‘Micholmeley Esq: Obi 15 Apr 1803 AE 61.’
Besides black enamel, white was also being used.
Most mourning rings were black to signify not only there passing but they were married, whereas white was exclusively used only for unmarried women, as can be seen below with the enamel going all the way around the band, or the death of a child.
Historically, white has also been the colour of deepest mourning among Medieval European Queens. Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III of France wore white after the assassination of her husband, and became known as Reine Blanche (The White Queen).
Made in 18ct gold, the band has the white enamel in such a way that it spells out, “Sarah Poole OB 23 May 1782 AE 18”. On the top of the ring is a weeping willow tree over an urn – a typical of this era.
Victorian diamond & pearl mourning ring set with enamel, seed pearl & old cut diamonds, engraved with “John Yates – April 23 1869”.
Early Victorian mourning ring with sead pearls with plated hair in the centre is covered by an Essex crystal.
The foil-backed .20ct old mine cut diamond is wrapped in a closed silver collet, which is in turn mounted in a carefully tooled 18k. The delicate script reads “JOA ORAM OB: 14 JULY 1734 AET 60.” The surname “Oram” is old Norse in origin and common in the north of England, “Joa” could be a shortening of “Jonathan” or “Joan” or “Joanna” just to name a few possibilities.
[All images via Erie Canal Collectors, The One I Love NYC, Kalmar Antiques, Helen Badge and Erica Weiner]