Early Mourning Jewelry

Last Sunday I bought a piece of photo jewelry to add to my collection at a local antique shop. One of the wonders to me about old photos is the stories behind them, both the provenance that occasionally comes with the photo jewelry and the stories I imagine in my mind of what I call orphan photos jewelry. While all photos tell a story photo jewelry seems to have a very personal and sensitive story. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad.

Adding photos to mourning jewelry

Mourning jewelry goes back to the 17th century or earlier. The Georgian period. Brooches in pendant and oval shapes, possibly representing a mourning teardrop were very popular. As were rings. The Georgian pieces are filled with Neo-Classical symbolism and miniature portraits. The Victorian era was next.

Victorian mourning jewelry was completely different. The Victorian age is considered the period from 1837 to 1901, spanning the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria. After the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria mourned his passing by wearing only black for the rest of her life. This created a trend that carried over to the rest of the country to wear black as a mourning color.

Mourning jewelry in the Victorian era became more a symbol of remembering the individuals and loved ones, rather then the symbols of death in the Georgian era. Jewelry in the Victorian era was a way of keeping the memories of the individuals alive and close. And what better way of remembering a person then with a photograph of them! Photography was still in it’s infancy in the 1840’s. However by the mid to late 1850’s many photo studios opened up all over America. It was very common for families to have photographs taken of their loved ones after death to have a way of remembering them. Post-mortem photography was very popular in the Victorian era and was carried on well into the 1960’s. And here it becomes a bit confusing. Most jewelry and pin backs are lumped together as mourning jewelry. I have seen daguerreotypes and ambrotypes listed on ebay as mourning jewelry. Personally I doubt it. If they could be documented they would be very rare. Daguerreotypes had a rather short life span, about ten years. The images would have to have been very small and because of their high reflectiveness, they wouldn’t have been desirable. The next process were ambrotypes, which were images on glass. Not an easy material to work with at a small size. Then came tintypes, and with their gem size of 3/4×1 inch, a perfect fit for lockets and brooches.

The civil war was a time of families being split up and tintypes were a way of keeping family members close. In pieces of jewelry they could be worn and kept one close to their son or sweetheart. These men didn’t have their images taken post mortem. While this jewelry could be worn after death, I feel the vast majority were designed as a way to keep loved ones close. Another common trend was to include a lock of hair in a locket, pin or brooch. Again, these are mostly classified as mourning jewelry. However, how often would a lock of hair be available after death? More likely the addition of a lock of hair would be a gift to a sweetheart as a remembrance of them. Giving hair was more a sign of affection then sharing a piece of a loved one. Maybe a remembrance category vs most photo jewelry being put in a mourning category. There is a difference. One is connected with sadness and the other could be connected with happiness.

My wife’s great great grandparents. First pin made from an original oil painting and the other from an early photograph. Both made many decades after their deaths for a family reunion. So this was a remembrance rather than a mourning pin.

More from my collection. Definitely not mourning pins. Yet that was how the dealer listed them.


Whether they are called mourning photo jewelry or remembrance photo jewelry there are lots of pieces out there. Hard to find because they are usually mixed in with so much other jewelry. Easy to over look! Some were made crudely, others were done by professional jewelers. Both, I find collectable. Age can pretty much be determined by the clasp. If the piece has a safety pin clasp it is either a replaced clasp or a newer piece. I usually find them in good condition for around $15-20. Also being so inexpensive, buying a reproduction is unlikely. Check old jewelry given to you by relatives. May find some in there. They tend to be overlooked.

If you do collect these wonderful memories, do not attempt to clean them! Most are very fragile and all they need would be a light wiping with a soft cloth. Scratching is a major problem so I store mine, individually, in archival cdv sleeves.

-Bob Walden

Cartes de Visite

Cartes de Visite

Cartes de Visite – Popular in the 1850s the name literally means calling card.