Victorian mourning and commemorative jewellery has its roots in the 18th century, but it really took off from 1861, the year that Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, died. Victoria took to wearing mourning jewellery as well as clothing, and the fashion quickly took hold in British middle class society. It was a fashion that was to last for the next 20 years.
Jet, a type of fossilised wood akin to coal or lignite, was one of the most popular materials for mourning jewellery. Jet has a deep blackness, skilled craftsmen can easily carve it into highly intricate patterns, and it can be polished to a high gloss. Jet mined at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast was considered to be of the highest quality, and the town was also a centre for jewellery making. Rings, bracelets and brooches were all made from Jet.
Another popular, and somewhat cheaper, material was Bog Oak, which is wood, not necessarily oak, that has been preserved in a peat bog. Ireland was the biggest single source of Bog Oak. It was less highly valued than Jet because the finish is more of a dark brown than pure black. For collectors, Bog Oak has the disadvantage that it tends to pale over time to a lighter tone, unlike Jet which maintains its hue.
Macabre as it may seem to us, human hair from the deceased was also used to make jewellery, often in combination with gold or silver clasps and findings. Sometimes a lock of hair would be kept in a locket or brooch, but hair was also woven into cord for use as rings or bracelets.
When considering buying mourning jewellery, pay particular attention to its condition. The most valuable pieces are free of damage or wear and tear. You should also look out for pieces that are unusual in some way, perhaps with some kind of personal message inscribed. Such quirks can add value to a piece. Other key factors are quality of both workmanship and materials.