For as long as humans have been honoring their deceased loved ones, they have been making and wearing jewelry as a way to remember them. Remembrance jewelry, as it’s often called, can take the form of a simple ring or pendant with the deceased’s name and date of death on it, or be a more elaborate piece with precious stones that incorporates hair and even cremains. Mourning jewelry is still common today, although it often takes a form that fits more into current styles.
Remembrance Jewelry in Ancient Times
Archeologists have found a variety of jewelry from centuries ago that incorporates bones and teeth. It’s not clear if these items were made in remembrance of particular individuals, as a mark of status or rank, or perhaps even as a form of protection or to bring luck.
Memorial and remembrance rings can be traced back to Ancient Rome. The Roman elite would remove their gold rings and replace them with iron rings in remembrance of the deceased.
Memorial Rings in the Renaissance
A number of wills written in the Late Middle Ages specifically mention rings as bequests to various important individuals. By the early Renaissance, these mourning rings became more common and were typically paid for by the estate or the heirs of the deceased. During this time, it was customary in some parts of society in England, in particular, to give rings that were inscribed with the name of the deceased and the date of death.
Mourning jewelry is often confused with and can overlap with memento mori jewelry. In fact, there is an argument to be made that remembrance jewelry worn prior to the 17th century should be considered memento mori jewelry – an item worn as a reminder of mortality in general rather than in memory of a specific person. What is clear is that this type of jewelry really reached its peak of popularity during the Victorian Era.
Victorian Mourning Jewelry
Memorial jewelry is most associated with the Victorian Era, specifically after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, in 1861. Queen Victoria wore mourning black for decades after his death, and set the example for the rest of the country. Black jewelry of all types became fashionable, and memorial jewelry in particular became very common – in part due to the shift toward mass production and less expensive materials.
It’s during this period that bereavement jewelry expanded beyond rings to include items like lockets, bracelets, necklaces, and cameos. More expensive items were often made out of jet (a form of fossilized coal), pearls, ivory, and jewels. More affordable alternatives included black enamel or glass.
While hair was used to create memorial jewelry since at least the mid-17th century, it also gained popularity among a wide range of people during Victorian times. Hair jewelry was created by craftsmen who also worked as wigmakers or hair artists, and could be quite expensive. Many women started making their own remembrance jewelry with hair, and various patterns, books, and “starter kits” were available. Hair could be woven into rings, pins, bracelets, and other items.
Modern Memorial Jewelry
Memorial jewelry had fallen out of style by the early 20th century, although memorial rings made a brief comeback in the 1930s and ’40s. Part of the reason behind this may be that the mortality rate had declined considerably from earlier eras.
Although memorial jewelry isn’t the fashion trend that it once was, there are far more options – and more affordable options – than there once were. Today, you can find a wide variety of rings, bracelets, necklaces, lockets, and other remembrance jewelry items, many of which can be engraved. In addition, modern manufacturing techniques allow for fingerprints and photographs to be engraved directly onto jewelry, creating a unique memorial item.
With the rise in the cremation rate in the United States in the past 20 years, there is a growing demand for cremation jewelry.
This type of memorial jewelry includes a small chamber where a pinch of ashes or cremains can be kept. Many people find that this is a wonderful way to honor a loved one who has died, and keep them close always. A wide range of cremation jewelry is available, including rings, pendants, and charms.