Victorian Mourning Jewelry: Morbid, Macabre, and Magnificent
I am totally into all things Victorian, creepy, and dark. I would call that a confession if it wasn’t blatantly obvious to anybody who gets to know me. I celebrate when they put Halloween decorations out at the stores. I have a closet full of Victorian-era-inspired costumes. So it should come as no surprise that I know a lot about Victorian mourning customs, and all of the macabre stuff that came along with the wave of Spiritualism that swept the western world in the late 19th century. My proclivity for the morbid and my career in beading and jewelry making come to a beautiful intersection at the topic of Victorian mourning jewelry.
The height of rigid and specific mourning customs was brought about after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, in 1861. At that time, a widow was supposed to wear mourning clothes for up to four years after her husband’s death, though many—like Victoria—wore mourning attire for the rest of their lives.
Queen Victoria’s choice to remain in black clothing influenced trends in fashion heavily at that time. It was during this period that mourning jewelry and hair jewelry reached peak popularity. Yes, you read that right—hair jewelry. Jewelry was painstakingly crafted from the hair of a deceased loved one, often in mind-boggling detail. Sometimes it was a simple lock of hair encased behind glass, but my favorites are the elaborate woven scenes of graveyards and mourners.
Hair jewelry, while fascinating, is not something I’m ready to try my hand at. (You either?) The mourning jewelry of the Victorian era made from beads, however, is ripe for plucking inspiration from. One of the most sought after materials for Victorian mourning jewelry was jet—a type of lignite, a mineraloid formed from wood that has decayed under extreme pressure. Jet is lighter in weight and warmer to the touch than its imitations, glass or plastic. Jet was shaped into beads, pendants, and brooches, sometimes faceted to bring some sparkle to its naturally waxy and dull surface, or intricately carved.
Nowadays, jet has lapsed in popularity, but there’s plenty of sparkly black glass and crystal beads to choose from. I am always on the lookout for beading patterns that are Victorian-looking, or even a little goth, and I’ve collected a few of my favorites here.
Liz Smith’s Black Magic Cuff Bracelet has all the black glitz and elegance of a Victorian mourning jewelry masterpiece. Using a structure of crystal bicones, sparkling charlotte beads, and a variation on a spiral rope stitch, this cuff bracelet has a mysterious, undulating texture.
The Black Lace Lariat from Lisa Kan’s book, Bead Romantique, seems ripped right from the pages of the history of Victorian mourning jewelry. In fact, Lisa looked to the Victorian lacework and Whitby jet mourning necklaces from the time of Queen Victoria’s reign when she designed this stunning piece.
I can see influences of the filigree-work common in Victorian mourning jewelry in the Cane Back Bracelet by Julie Glasser. Simple seed beads and bugles are stitched in alternating right-angle-weave and peyote patterns to form this bracelet.
Not all Victorian mourning jewelry was black—some muted colors such as gray, lavender, and lilac were allowed into the wardrobe when you entered half-mourning. There are many beautiful beading patterns that feature these muted colors, and I would love to create any of these Victorian-looking pieces in black, as well.
Caren Smith’s Daybreak Necklace has an elegant design, with draping strands of crystals. The somber lavender tones and black crystals come together to make a very Victorian-looking necklace.
The Quatrefoil Kite Earrings by Debora Hodoyer are a great example of how color can change the look and feel of a design. Shapes inspired by classic gothic architecture are shown here in beautiful and not-too-showy colors. If you used black beads, this design could be pushed even further into the territory of Victorian mourning jewelry.
The intricate designs found in Victorian mourning jewelry are reflected in Carolyn Cave’s Trinity Pendant pattern. The delicate floral details, the lacy pattern to the beadwork, and the muted colors combine in a Victorian design trifecta.
I understand the morbid and macabre are not for everyone, but I find beauty in the dark and mysterious. I love the Victorian era’s embrace of memento mori, and using what is naturally scary and sad to create beautiful and creative works of art. The dark elegance of the period’s fashions has influence over trends and design even today. Are you inspired to create some gorgeous pieces reminiscent of Victorian mourning jewelry now? Let us know in the comments!
Technical Editor, Beadwork magazine
Featured Image: Queen Victoria’s five daughters in mourning over the loss of their father, Prince Albert. Photo: William Bambridge, Royal Collection. Hair jewelry and brooches. Photo: Wellcome Images. Jet mourning jewelry. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber.