Mourning jewellery continues to fascinate me, particularly mourning rings. It makes sense to me to have something tangible to wear that will help you to remember the life of a loved one. With a gravestone or memorial plaque, you need to visit it but with a piece of jewellery, it can be with you every day. Of course, many items of mourning jewellery were mass produced to some extent during certain periods. It was often common for a person’s will in the 16th and 17th century to specify that mourning rings were to be handed out to certain people. Samuel Pepys in 1703 instructed that 123 mourning rings should be given out to relatives, friends, servants and colleagues. The mourning rings fell into three price ranges – 20 shillings, 15 shillings and ten shillings. Some people ended up with jars full of rings. However, many wills contained only a small list of people who should receive a ring; these usually contained hair and an inscription.
Not all rings ended up in jars or in drawers. Some rings were used by members of the same family and by different generations. The Georgian ring below has the following inscription:
‘R O’Neall, obt 16 July 1792 at 42 years; Harry O’Neall, obt 18 July 1801 aged 59; Geo O’Neall, 18 July 1808 aged 25.’ (note that ‘ob’ or ‘obt’ is an abbreviation for the Latin word ‘obiit’, meaning ‘(he) died’.)
This is a ring that recorded a family’s deaths over a 16 year period and was obviously worn by surviving family members after that. From around 1780 to 1810, rings like this with wide ‘cigar-shape’ bands were produced, often made in rose-gold. Cigar band rings have wide shoulders next to the bezel, and then narrow slightly to form the band. The central bezel is round, oval or rectangular. It is curved to fit the shape of the finger. There is a central compartment for hair, then either a plain gold border, or one with enamel or pearls.
The next ring, above, has plaited hair under a central glazed panel, and a gold border and shoulders with beautiful engraved flowers. It is typical of the late Georgian/early Victorian period.
The ring featured at the top of the post shows quite a change in style. Hallmarked Birmingham 1861, it is a simple band, slightly thicker on the top, with black enamel and set with light gray seed pearls, in a floral pattern. The centre is a forget-me-not flower with 5 pearls and then there are leaves branching out from the center with 3 pearls on each side.
By the end of the century, mourning was not such a national preoccupation as it was earlier in the century. The Edwardian ring above is hallmarked London 1909 and you can see it is a fairly simple design, black enamel and a central pearl set in a star.