In about 1996, while trawling for hair-work brooches on eBay with a tax return smoldering in my pocket, I found a listing with a ridiculously blurry photo of what looked like—just maybe—a Regency era mourning brooch. The accompanying item description encapsulated the prevailing 20th century attitude toward mourning jewelry. As I recall, it read something very close to “We found this pin that belonged to grandma. It has hair in it! Eww! Get it out of our house!” I obliged for about $40; no other bidders were willing to take the chance with that kind of sales photo. One- by three-quarters-inch in size, this type of small brooch was known as a “lace pin” and used to secure veils, ribbons, pelerines, and other accessories. They were also worn by men as lapel pins.
The 210-hundred-year-old gem that I received was made of 10-karat or higher plain and rose gold with completely intact niello and inset faceted jet cabochons. (Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal.) The brooch was in pristine condition, bearing the inscription “Mary Palmer. Ob. 3 July 1806, aet. 38.” The abbreviation “Ob.” is from the Latin obitus—“a departure,” which has long been a euphemism for death. “Aet.” is from the Latin aetatis—“of age.”
My Mary was probably born in 1768—the year when the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved for not collecting taxes and Boston citizens balked at quartering British troops. Additionally, John Hancock had refused to give royal customs agents access to his vessel—one of the first acts of physical resistance to British authority; a month later, that same authority would seize Hancock’s ship. In Scotland, the first encyclopedia was published; in London, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for penning an article that criticized King George III. His arrest kicked off riots that led to the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.
In 1838, British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth would name his youngest son John Wilkes Booth in the jailed MP’s honor. By the birth of this future presidential assassin, Mary Palmer had been dead for 32 years. The world on which she closed her eyes had recently seen Napoleonic War hero General Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, repose in state at St. Paul’s, the the surrender of Dutch Cape Colony to the British, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their journey back from the Pacific, the distribution of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as U.S. president.
All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was lost on and to her descendants, who found her memorial brooch too disgusting to keep.
One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of a cremains and hair as diamonds.
It can be postulated that the major televised tragedies and wars of the early 21st century have made displays of public and personal grief more acceptable. Or perhaps rising generations are rebelling against the old ways, as they are wont—their elders did not speak of death, therefore they will. In either case, for whatever collective reasons, many years after I purchased the Mary Palmer memorial brooch, I stumbled across the website Memorials.net and read, “Memorial jewelry is, perhaps, the newest, most novel idea in the memorial industry [emphasis mine] and it is becoming more popular every year…. Memorial jewelry is…used to store locks of hair of family members whose bodies have been buried, and memorial jewelry often simply encloses a special picture of a loved-ones. Many pieces of memorial jewelry are also engraved with special memorial quotations.”
Clearly, someone needs a history lesson. However, the acknowledgement of momentum is spot on. For example, the growing preference for cremation has led to jewelry that contains, or is made from, a portion of the deceased’s ashes. Much like the Victorian jeweler Dewdney, today companies and artisans who specialize in memorial jewelry offer it in various styles of precious and semiprecious metals with personalized engraving.
Touching the deaths of children, independent artisans have begun to craft pieces meant for those who have lost infants or experienced stillbirths and miscarriages. One such enterprise, La Belle Dame, explains on its website, “We created our miscarriage and infant loss jewelry to help mothers feel connected to their little ones, to have a tangible something to touch and give them strength when they need it most.”
One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of cremains and hair as diamonds. These are formed by carbon extraction while the ashes and hair are subjected to extreme heat and pressure, replicating the process that occurs naturally in the earth. According to one company, writting in almost the same heavily sentimental language of the Victorians, “The diamonds are available in brilliant and beautiful yellows and blues like a sunset captured in time or a wave upon the ocean.” The gems can be set into rings, pendants, or brooches that memorialize the dead.
Today’s mourners who commission these pieces can be assured they shall be cherished—if not by their own descendants, then by future collectors. And perhaps, in that long-off century, someone will feel a tickle that grows into a powerful urge to discover who the dead once were.
As for Mary Palmer, I cannot tell her story yet. I have identified a number of British and American women with this name born at the right time, but none of these offer a corresponding 3 July, 1806 death date—and at any rate, if Palmer was a married name then none of the Marys born in 1768 are correct. I hope that one day I will locate Mary in extant records and piece together a life that will stand as meaningful to me, if not to those who shared her blood. Ω