“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe
This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.
The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.
Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.
The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.
In the aftermath of Katherine Parr’s passing, Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhitt, one of her closest friends, recalled, “Two days afore the death of the Queen, at my coming to her in the morning, she asked me where I had been so long, and said unto me, she did fear such things in herself, that she was sure she could not live. Whereunto I answered, as I thought, that I saw no likelihood of death in her. She then having my Lord Admiral by the hand, and divers others standing by, spake these words, partly, as I took it, [in delirium], ‘My Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled, for those that be about me careth not for me, but standeth laughing at my grief, and the more good I will to them, the less good they will to me.’”
In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.
Charles Stuart, later King Charles I, was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.
Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.
As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
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.
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.”
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning.
At the close of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th, memorial pieces with hair were generally small, delicate, and graceful. However, the oncoming Victorian era would turn “the entire ritual of mourning into a public display, and the jewelry changed accordingly, becoming larger, heavier, and more obvious,” wrote the curators of the Springfield, Illinois-based Museum of Funeral Customs in Bejeweled Bereavement: Mourning Jewelry—1765-1920.
In December 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, died of what is thought to have been typhoid fever. Married for twenty-one years, their happy union resulted in the birth of nine children. The forty-two-year-old prince’s demise shattered Victoria. For the rest of her life, the queen wore mourning and required many courtiers who served her and who attended court functions to do the same.
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be worn during all stages of mourning. For example, in the first nine months, the only acceptable jewelry was made of black glass, dyed pressed animal horn, gutta-percha (a latex plastic derived from tropical evergreens), vulcanite and ebonite (rubber treated with sulfur and heat), bog oak (fossilized peat), or carved from jet (a fossilized wood that washes up on west coast Yorkshire beaches, and was extracted from shale seams, particularly around between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby). In later stages of mourning, gold or pinchbeck (a composite metal) and hair-work jewelry commemorating the deceased was worn. Many of these items bore the motto “In Memory Of” and featured heavy black enameling.
“Warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.”
I purchased this mourning brooch in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993. It was the foundation of my collection and, at the time, was actually was my second choice—the first being a smaller, plainer piece with a simply coiled blond lock, probably dating from the 1820s or 1830s. The brooch looked more “human” to me, but the shop owner enticed me toward a different brooch, assuring me it was unusual. It dates from the late 1840s to early 1850s.
The body is 14-karat gold or higher with a tube hinge, C-clasp, and a pin that is longer than the length of the brooch—all evidence that an item that was indeed crafted in the 18th or 19th centuries. The hair memento compartment is set amidst a tempestuous lovers’ knot untamed by the somber black enamel embellishment. Inside the glass-capped compartment is a piece of black cloth on which palette-worked gray hair has been affixed. The design is known as Prince of Wales feathers and is decorated with a pearl band, as well as a stalk of barley and ribbon made from gold wire thread.
The Prince of Wales feathers for the Edinburgh brooch were carefully crafted by a professional hairworker. For an exploration of how it was made, one can turn to no better source than the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values by C. Jeanenne Bell, which contains a full reprint of Alexanna Speight’s 1877 booklet, A Lock of Hair. The booklet contains instructions for palette work that were aimed at the Victorian lady who aspired to a new and noble handwork. Taking up the hobby, as Bell notes, would not only give her “the satisfaction of working with the hair of her loved ones, but it also assured her that the precious locks would not be substituted for, or augmented with, another’s”—an ignoble deed undertaken by unscrupulous memorial jewelry makers and feared to occur with regularity.