A Treasure Without Meaning to Its Clan

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was not valued by her descendants, who found her mourning brooch too disgusting to keep.

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Memorial brooch for Mary Palmer showing her russet hair with snippets of what might be gold thread that once formed a small design, but which have since become unglued and tarnished. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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The reverse inscription of the Mary Palmer brooch.

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.”

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Twenty-first century mourning jewelry exemplified by this platinum ring with a blue cremation diamond. This example is by LifeGem®.

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

Salt Life and Death

“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”

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Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.

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This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω

In Memory of Ernest

It provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.

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Pinchbeck and black enamel mourning brooch. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I purchased this mourning brooch from an eBay seller in 2008—I was the only interested party. Granted, it is not a particularly attractive brooch and has seen rough handling. However, it provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.

The key to its power is the reverse inscription, which reads: “In memory of Ernest. Died 4.30 AM, 11 January 1862. Latitude 31° degrees 30′ South, Longitude 14° degrees 40′ East. Aged 2 Years and 11 Months.” Whilst holding the brooch in my hand, I plugged the coordinates into Google Earth, which took me not to a point on land, but the inky dark sea. This confluence of coordinates placed the baby Ernest off the African coast, about 500 miles west of modern Bitterfontein, South Africa. Ernest had died aboard a ship.

Did the boy die soon after leaving or just miss the end of a long voyage? This brooch was located in England until I purchased it, so was more likely that the ship sailed toward Europe, rather than Australia or Cape Town, then a part of the rapidly expanding British Cape Colony.

I’m burningly curious why this baby has no inscribed last name, yet someone loved him so much that they noted the exact time and longitude and latitude of his death. Why not just inscribe “died at sea”? I want to know whether Ernest’s mother was there with him. Did he pass away in her arms? Was she a passenger or a convict? (The last transport to Australia wasn’t until 1868.) Was she a ship’s cook or perhaps a missionary’s wife?

To slip into death at half-past four a.m. surely indicates it was disease that took Ernest, as it often does, deep in the darkness. I can imagine the dim light of a lantern, a weeping but resigned mother pressing a cool cloth to the child’s forehead, the gentle creak of the ship’s timbers, and the waves rocking him to sleep.

Ernest was likely buried at sea; if so, his small bones are long dissolved on the ocean floor. All that is left of his little life is a lock of fair hair curled into a plume that was fixed by gum arabic to a piece of milk glass, decorated with a few sprigs of gold wire, and encased in black enamel over pinchbeck.

If Ernest’s family had recorded his last name on the brooch, I might be able to find him in public records to flesh out the story of his short existence. As it is, the only hope of knowing more about Ernest is to find a record of the ship he died on by narrowing down vessels in the area at the time—a mammoth task, albeit one that might be possible online someday. Challenges like this are more conquerable now than it ever before, and with each passing year, newly digitized historic data comes online to the joy of historians and genealogists everywhere. Ω