Her Dark Materials: A History of Victorian Mourning Jewelry

 Queen Victoria, Lithograph by J.A. Vinter, 1858 (before the death of her husband)

All over the world, there are streets, towns, cities, and parks named after her, but Queen Victoria is often remembered as a fashion influencer of the 19th century. She ushered in a new era of wearing only black and commissioned countless pieces of mourning jewelry to remember her dearly departed husband and her loved ones.

The 21-year marriage of Victoria and her first cousin Albert began as a regal love match. It ended as a national tragedy, a tragedy that Queen Victoria diligently observed for over 40 years.

Upon her first meeting with Albert, in 1836, when she was 17 and a year away from ascending the throne, Victoria wrote in her diary that Albert was “extremely handsome, his eyes are large and blue, he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.” She pursued him and it was she who asked him to marry her.

After their 1840 wedding, the couple produced nine children, which meant that Queen Victoria spent an awful lot of time in what was then known as “confinement”. This left Prince Albert with ready access to the reins of power, and he soon became adept in their use.

Although the marriage was initially marked with spates of intense disagreement, the couple were romantic and deeply in love. Over time Victoria gained a great deal of confidence and trust in Albert’s wisdom and guidance. She elevated him to the position of Prince Consort, which made him the most authoritative member of British Royalty (after the Queen, of course).

In 1861, after a brief illness, Albert died. Victoria was utterly overwhelmed by grief. For the next 40 years, she wore her black dresses, her black jewelry, and mandated that only black mourning attire be worn in court.


Victoria elevates the art of mourning 

As Queen Victoria set the example for her court and was an admired public figure, wearing mourning jewellery became fashionable. Women in England all wanted to wear black jewelry but not everyone could afford the hand-carved Whitby jet favored by the Queen and the aristocracy. Fortunately, other dark materials were discovered that worked well as a less expensive substitute for Whitby jet.


What is Whitby jet? 

Whitby jet is a highly prized, organic gemstone formed from decomposed trees compressed deep in the earth over millions of years. Jet is the fossilized remains of the monkey puzzle tree that was once in abundance in the cliffs around Whitby, in the south of England.

Victorian jet mines sprung to life during the reign of Queen Victoria. She loved jewelry and her jewelers carved the jet into mourning brooches and lockets, often topped with carvings of forget-me-nots, weeping willows, and set with seed pearls and gemstones.


What is bog oak?

Bog oak is the wood of fallen oak trees that have been submerged in lakes, rivers, swamps, and peat bogs for centuries. Deprived of oxygen, the wood is preserved from normal decay, while the underlying peat provides acidic conditions where iron salts and other minerals react with the tannins in the wood. This gives the wood its distinctive dark brown to almost black color.    

Bog oak is extremely hard. Victorian era jewelers required special tools to carve the beads, keepsakes, crosses, and mourning lockets that were so popular during the 19th century.

According to legends, items made from ancient bog oak are imbued with magical elements found in nature.


What is vulcanite?

Vulcanite, sometimes called ebonite, is a type of vulcanized rubber formed by combining sulfur and with rubber from Malaysian Ficus trees. Invented in 1843 by Charles Goodyear, vulcanite can be black, brown, and even white. This hard substance was often used to imitate tortoiseshell and jet, as dark pieces became more popular with the prevalence of mourning jewelry. 

Like jet, it's lightweight and warm to the touch. Most vulcanite pieces are molded, as opposed to carved, and are more espresso-colored than black. Vulcanite turns brown over time with exposure to sunlight.


What is gutta percha? 

Gutta percha, discovered in 1840, is a natural latex distilled from the sap of the Malaysian Palaquium Gutta tree. Like its synthetic cousin, vulcanite, it is brownish-black in appearance and is molded rather than carved.

Highly flexible yet durable, it was used to mold cameos, beads, lockets, pendants, and necklaces links.


The history of mourning pieces 

From the 16th to the 18th century, mourning jewelry took on a macabre appearance with skulls, crossbones, and little coffins displayed on mourning rings, brooches, and lockets. Jewelry was often inscribed with “memento mori”, Latin for “remember that we all must to die”. Pieces bearing that inscription were intended as a reflection on mortality and the fact that none of us can take any earthly goods with us as we shuffle off.

Queen Victoria changed the whole gestalt of mourning jewelry when Albert died. She softened the approach to death by incorporating loving symbols such as flowers, birds, trees, and hearts into her extensive collection of onyx, gold, and black enamel jewelry set with diamonds and seed pearls.

Imbued with history, meaning, and romance, you're probably not surprised to learn that we love antique Victorian jewelry here at Romy in the Desert.