The 18th and the 19th centuries represented the zenith of mourning rings. By the early 20th century, the love of sentimental jewellery had waned and the first world war saw its demise. In the two centuries before, mourning rings had been very popular but the styles did change quite a bit.
Coming into the early 18th century, society had quite a preoccupation with death and wore memento mori (Remember you must die) jewellery that acknowledged the inevitability of dying. Imagery such as skulls, coffins and crossbones were included in enamel on the outside of rings with an inscription such as ‘hope of an eternal life’ (but in Latin) inscribed inside. Gradually these memento mori rings became mourning rings but with inscriptions such as ‘For thee I morne as one forlorne’.
Between 1720 and 1765, rings changed from a single enameled gold band to having a narrow enamel band, slightly scrolled and often with a central stone, under which hair might be encased or memento mori imagery. This was known as the Rococco period.
Around 1765, the Neo-classicism style saw the central bezels become larger, with more prominent hair compartments. The bezels also became flatter and were often surrounded by seed pearls, black garnets or turquoise. Towards the end of the century, the bezels changed shapes and became navette shaped, ovals with pointed ends. These navettes contained the sepia miniature paintings, like the one at the start of this blog. The ink for these tiny paintings was often mixed with dissolved hair. These paintings were full of imagery, such as a weeping female mourner, an urn on a plinth, a ship, an anchor, a broken branch, and/or a weeping willow. Sometimes, the plinth would have an inscription with the details of the person being mourned.
The 19th century saw a range of different style of mourning rings, some of which you can find in my two previous posts on mourning rings. At the beginning of the century, rings had become simpler. The bezel was a rounded oblong, and was curved to fit the shape of the finger. Oblique or oval bezels were also used. The name, date of death and age of the deceased was often inscribed underneath the bezel. The shoulders could be quite wide, tapering to form a thick band, or the shoulders could be split, leading to a reeded or channeled band. After 1820, rings became simple enameled bands again, white (for children), light blue (for unmarried women) and black. These bands then became thicker, with ornate chasing or carving in gold.
Shield shaped bezels became fashionable in the 1840s and 50s, with a compartment for hair underneath. Enameled rings remained popular, sometime with gypsy set diamonds or pearls, forget-me-nots and pansies. Bands of hair were often covered by hoop rings. By the 1860s, small photos of the dead person began to be included into rings, pendants and brooches.
In the late 19th century, attitudes towards death began to change. In 1887, Queen Victoria was persuaded to resume her royal duties after years of seclusion. There were many developments in medicine and in science, leading to longer life spans and a reduced preoccupation in death.