Beginner’s Guide & Info On Victorian Mourning Jewellery

One of the most fascinating areas of vintage jewellery is the genre known as mourning jewellery. When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died at the early age 42, she was consumed with grief for many years. One of the ways she expressed this was to wear tokens of her mourning in the shape of jewellery. Whilst ‘mourning jewellery’ has been around for hundreds of years, it was the influential Queen Victoria who started the mourning fashion craze, which quickly spread amongst the masses. It was to last until her own death 40 years later.

antique victorian coral mourning brooch with weaved hair
ABOVE: an example of an early Victorian mourning brooch, made from coral and intricately weaved human hair.

What is mourning jewellery?

In times gone by, many people died at a young age because of poor diet and unhygienic lifestyles. Deadly disease was rife, and child birth was a major risk which put both mother and baby in life-threatening danger; death played a sad yet normal part of every day life. For the status obsessed and crushingly polite 19th century Victorians, mourning jewellery was a clever way of showing people what your status was (eg newly widowed or just lost a child) without the potential embarrassment of telling them. It was also worn as a sentimental reminder of the person who’d actually passed away.

The secret Language of Flowers, and hidden symbolism in Victorian mourning jewellery

The Victorians had strict codes of behavior and etiquette. Even expressing a personal feeling was often considered rude, so when someone needed to convey a message, they did so using silent symbolism, which involved giving gifts which symbolized words. For example, floral bouquets called ‘Tussie Mussie’s’ were popular during this period. They worked by letting the sender spell out a whole sentence in flowers (eg bell flowers meant “thinking of you“) to a desired recipient. Jewellery was often given for the same reason too – forget-me-not flower jewellery was especially popular as it meant ‘true love’.

ABOVE: a Victorian mourning flower brooch made from Vulcanite. The types of flowers shown here would have had great meaning to the original owner.
ABOVE: a 19th Century Victorian mourning flower brooch made from Vulcanite, which is a type of rubber material. The types of flowers shown here would have had great meaning to the original owner.

Materials used to make mourning jewellery

Natural Whitby jet from Yorkshire was one of the most sought after materials for mourning jewellery due to the natural high quality finish which could be achieved. However, it quickly became scarce and expensive due to demand, so ‘fake’ jets such as black glass (romantically called French Jet) became a cheaper alternative, as did dyed black horn, early rubberized materials (such as Vulcanite), and bog oak from Ireland.

The Victorian era was a period of immense change and fast moving innovation. Up until the 19th Century, jewellery was individually hand made, usually with precious metals, gemstones and glass (a.k.a ‘paste’ which was an expensive luxury), and was the preserve of the rich upper classes. Mourning jewellery was one of the first type of jewellery that was mass produced in large numbers, and was so low priced it could be worn by the general population, not just the aristocracy.

ABOVE: This necklace is made from Vulcanite (aka Ebonite), a 19th Century hard rubberized man-made material which could be mass produced. These chunky chain links were the height of fashion for Victorian ladies.
ABOVE: This Victorian antique necklace is made from Vulcanite, a 19th Century hard rubberized man-made material which could be mass produced. These chunky chain links were the height of fashion for Victorian ladies.
ABOVE: a Victorian antique Vulcanite morning brooch, depicting ivy (which means true love).
ABOVE: a Victorian antique Vulcanite morning brooch, depicting ivy (which often means true love).
ABOVE: This Victorian pendant is made from a Vulcanite base, while the grapes are made from French Jet, which is a fancy term for black glass. Grapes symbolise charity.
ABOVE: This antique Victorian pendant is made from a Vulcanite base, while the grapes are made from French Jet, which is a fancy term for black glass.
ABOVE: a typical hand carved Whitby jet mourning brooch.
ABOVE: a typical hand carved antique Victorian Whitby jet mourning brooch.
PhotobuckABOVE: a rare 19th Century Whitby Jet mourning necklace, made from hand faceted beads. Whitby Jet was believed to be the finest of all the jet gemstones, and was prized by the Victorians. It's still highly desirable today.et
ABOVE: a rare 19th Century antique Whitby Jet mourning necklace, made from hand faceted beads. Whitby Jet was believed to be the finest of all the jet gemstones, and was prized by the Victorians. It is still highly desirable today.
ABOVE: A Victorian mourning necklace, made from French Jet (aka black glass). Real jet jewellery was expensive and rare - French Jet was an affordable alternative for Victorian fashion lovers.
ABOVE: An antique Victorian mourning necklace, made from French Jet (aka black glass). Real jet jewellery was expensive and rare – French Jet was an affordable alternative for Victorian fashion lovers.
ABOVE: a black enamel and woven hair Victorian mourning brooch, made from two tones of human hair - probably the hair of the deceased and their widowed partner, woven together.
ABOVE: a black enamel and woven hair antique Victorian mourning brooch, made from two tones of human hair – possibly the hair of the deceased and their widowed partner, woven together.
ABOVE: a black enamel and blond woven human hair Victorian mourning brooch. This is a basic example of Victorian hair weaving - the more elaborate ones are breathtaking in their creation and impossibly intricate weaving.
ABOVE: a black enamel and blond woven human hair antique Victorian mourning brooch. This is a basic example of Victorian hair weaving – the more elaborate ones are breathtaking in their creation and impossibly intricate weaving.
ABOVE: a woven hair (horse tail) Victorian pocket watch chain
ABOVE: horses were highly prized in Victorian times, and this a antique Victorian pocket watch chain has been woven with the hair tail of a much loved horse. This is the only type of mourning jewellery that is still popular today,with many companies still specializing in sentimental horse hair jewellery.
ABOVE: a Victorian Whitby jet mourning bracelet, which looks and feels as new today as it did when it was first made over 120 years ago.
ABOVE: a Victorian Whitby jet mourning bracelet, which looks and feels as new today as it did when it was first made over 120 years ago.


You can learn how to identify jewellery materials such as Vulcanite and Whitby Jet in this blog post.

Collecting mourning jewellery

Original jewellery from the Victorian period was made to last, and can still be found quite easily today. Vulcanite, horn, Whitby Jet and bog oak brooches are common, though necklaces, rings and bracelets are rare and command much higher prices. The most sought after antique mourning jewellery is made from enameled precious metals and includes impossibly intricate hair weaving.

Finally, a type of jewellery called ‘Memento Mori’ (which is Latin for ‘Remember you will die’), at first looks quite similar to mourning jewellery. However, it dates back to around the 1600s, and was slightly different in that it was generally worn as a reminder of one’s own mortality and fleeting time on earth, rather than an actual mourning trinket of someone else’s death. You can recognize antique Memento Mori items straight away due to their disturbing imagery, which includes brooches depicting miniature paintings of coffins, rings set with tiny carved skulls instead of gemstones, and even pictures of rotting corpses on bracelets.

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3 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide & Info On Victorian Mourning Jewellery

  1. Thanks so much! What a wonderful site you have. I still am having difficulty identifying two Victorian mourning necklaces that were in my family as the beads don’t seem to match what you wrote about. I am wondering if you can help me?

    They are hand knotted between beads, one is a 3 graduated-strand necklace and the other is quite a long single strand and look very, very old. They are both made from smallish black beads, of irregular round shapes and are heavy and cold to the touch. They feel wonderfully smooth even though the beads themselves are not symmetrical, they make an interesting almost metallic sound when clinked, but look more like seeds than anything else I have seen, in a way.

    I am hoping someone can help to identify the material and I can send pics if desired. I am moving to Central America so am parting with all the family heirlooms and jewelry so I want to identify them correctly before selling!

    Thanks so much again for a beautiful blog site.

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