Popular in the 19th century, mourning jewelry was fashionable to wear after the loss of a loved one. Sometimes, the pieces were made of jet and featured angels, skulls, or other symbols of mourning. The pieces might also incorporate a tiny portrait or lock of the dead person's hair. (See the Victorian hairwork bracelet above.) One of the world's foremost collectors of mourning jewelry is Hayden Peters, whose Art of Mourning site is an incredible resource for "memorial, mourning, sentimental jewellery, and art." The excellent Collectors Weekly recently interviewed Peters about the history of these intriguing artifacts. From The Collectors Weekly:
Peters: Memorial pieces were made for public events related to a death. Mourning jewelry was usually a little more personal. While several pieces might be made for someone's death, it was still for the family or people close to the deceased.
A skull and a watch both represent the passage of time. This example in verge silver is from around 1780.
The early precursors to mourning jewelry displayed the skull and crossbones and all those memento mori, remember-you-will-die motifs. Shakespeare commissioned mourning rings. But the mourning rings from the 1500s and 1600s the skull and crossbones and those motifs as a statement of living. It meant 'yes, you would be judged at the end, so live your life correctly'. A skull and crossbones was not always about death.
I think that's one reason why sentimental jewelry is the most misunderstood of all jewelry, especially when mourning comes into it. A lot of people think it's morbid and maybe grisly, but it's not. Honoring someone's life with a piece of mourning jewelry is one of the most beautiful things you can do for somebody. I can't stand the negative connotations. And sometimes it's hard to differentiate whether a piece is for mourning the death of a loved one or just a token of affection.