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How to Identify Mourning and Memento Mori Jewelry

Written by Annabelle
October 4, 2019

As part of our month-long Halloween celebration, we'll be featuring spooky blog posts every Friday! This week's spooky jewelry post is about mourning and memento mori jewelry- a unique style of jewelry that is still highly influential to designers today! Read on to learn how to identify it and why it's so scarily delicious for any jewelry collector.

What is Mourning and Memento Mori Jewelry?

The phrase “memento mori” is Latin for “Remember you will die.” A cheery sentiment to think about, but back in the 16th century, it was considered a reminder to live well by religious rules. After all, when you are constantly warned about your mortality, you'll have to consider the afterlife…and how your actions might affect your final destination.

This grim attitude reflected itself in this particular antique jewelry style.. Skulls and skeletons covered rich gold pieces, and dark motifs littered pendants, rings, and lockets. As the years went by, memento mori jewelry blended with mourning jewelry. Unlike memento mori jewelry, these mourning pieces were designed for wear when someone died. They utilized hair from the deceased person, or had their names engraved and detailed with black or dark blue enamel.

Ways to Identify Mourning and Memento Mori Jewelry

To figure out if a piece of jewelry counts as mourning or memento mori jewelry, the first thing you should look at is the age of the piece. Mourning and Memento Mori jewelry falls into the antique jewelry category; as a result, a newer piece will be considered revival or imitation. The stamps on the inside of the jewelry can also help as well. Many pieces on the market are of British origin and the stamps will indicate the country of manufacture.

Finally, you can readily identify mourning and memento mori jewelry by looking at the materials and motifs. We've compiled a list of 5 common details for you below:

1. Black gems


This piece has two custom-cut onyx gems shaped to fit the unique setting.

Black has traditionally been the color of mourning and death in Western society, so it's not surprising that it was heavily used in both memento mori and mourning jewelry. Popular materials included jet, onyx, black glass, tortoiseshell, or even a type of rubber known as vulcanite.
In many pieces of memento mori and mourning jewelry, these gems were cleverly cut and shaped to accommodate for various designs. Some pieces had a hole in the middle to fit a small diamond insert, or were specially cut to fit in atypical settings.

2.Skulls and bones


This skull college pin from Pi Beta Phi sorority is decorated with black enamel, pearls, and peridots.

The most telltale sign of a memento mori piece- skulls and skeletons are the best way to visualize death, after all! Many of these designs were created via enameling, engraving, or a combination of the two. These motifs eventually influenced modern-day designers, and now you can find skull-themed jewelry with high-end brands like Alexander McQueen, or rougher, silver biker jewelry from Harley Davidson. Even sororities use them in their pins!

3. Black enamel


A black antique ring with enamel re-applied to missing areas

When people were in mourning, they couldn't wear bright colors. To match the somberness of the occasion, black enamel was a popular coloration. This “paint-like” substance usually consisted of powdered glass, which was then applied and baked onto the surface of the metal.
Aside from darkening a piece of jewelry, it was also used for highlighting details and making engravings stand out more. As a result, there are a lot of memento mori and mourning pieces that have vibrant contrast between engraved names and the surrounding metal.

4. Snakes


This cute little snake ring has a pair of ruby eyes and a diamond head.

Snakes are an interesting motif. While they're best known for an engagement ring craze in the 1800s thanks to Prince Albert's gift of an emerald-set serpent ring to Queen Victoria, they were also utilized in a more “dark” manner for memento mori jewelry. In its iconic ouroboros design, with the tail of the snake in the mouth, it symbolized life after death, or eternity- a popular meaning for lovers. A lot of settings from this period incorporate snakes into the design; either as the central focus, or wreathed around slabs of rock crystal with hair displayed underneath.

5. Hair


This pendant was originally a brooch; the hair within is intricately woven.

The easiest way to find out if you have a piece of mourning jewelry is seeing hair in the design. People from the Georgian-Victorian eras loved the idea of keeping a deceased person close…by taking a piece of their hair and keeping it in their jewelry. How the hair was presented in the work ranged from just a simple lock or clip of hair to intricately woven patterns. Sometimes, the hair was even used to make a bracelet or necklace by replacing the chain.

Now that you're up to date on how to identify mourning and memento mori jewelry, check out our Halloween contest to win a spooktastic $200 gift card here.

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What a great article! I loved learning about all of it, especially the meaning of the snakes