“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.
Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.
The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.
My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.
Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”
I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.
Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.
After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “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. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”
When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω
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.’”
A few days earlier, on 30 August, 1548, at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, 36-year-old Katherine had given birth to her first child. She and her most recent husband, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, named the healthy baby girl after Katherine’s adult stepdaughter, Princess Mary Tudor. Despite the polar opposition of their religions—Mary was a devout Catholic and Katherine an evangelical Protestant—the two were close.
Not present as Katherine’s condition degenerated was her second royal stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, who had lived at Sudeley with the Queen. The reason why was tied to what Lady Tyrwhitt heard the feverish Katherine say to the Lord Admiral. Seymour had sexually harassed, if not actually molested, Elizabeth on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, Katherine sided with the man she desperately loved and with whose child she was heavily pregnant. Elizabeth was sent away from Sudeley in disgrace, as if Seymour’s faults were her own. A rapprochement between stepmother and stepdaughter had just begun at the time of baby Mary’s birth.
Katherine Parr’s storied life began in Blackfriars, London, sometime in August 1512. The daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Lady Maud Green had known King Henry peripherally for many years before he married her in 1543. Both she and her mother were ladies in waiting to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Katherine appears to have served in the household of Princess Mary.
When Katherine wed the King, she had been married twice before—first, as a teenager to Sir Edward Borough, the grandson of 2nd Baron Borough of Gainsborough Hall. A year after the young man’s death in 1533, she married middle-aged John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer of Snape Castle, North Yorkshire. In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Snape Castle was captured by rebels and Katherine and her Neville stepchildren were held hostage and threatened with death if Baron Latimer did not acquiesce to their demands. The beleaguered Latimer saved his family, but died in 1543, leaving Katherine as a 30-year-old widow.
Slender, vital, and attractive, Katherine wanted to marry for love before her youth was lost. The man she wanted was Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third queen, Jane, who died in 1537 after the birth of Prince Edward. Instead, the widowed Lady Latimer’s hand was solicited by King Henry. He married her in July 1543 at Hampton Court.
In 1544, Queen Katherine, who loved color and finery, was described by de Gante, the secretary to the Duke of Najera, thusly: “She is of a lively and pleasing appearance and is praised as a virtuous woman. She was dressed in a robe of cloth of gold and a petticoat of brocade with sleeves lined with crimson satin and trimmed with three-piled crimson velvet. Her train was more than two yards long. Suspended from her neck were two crosses, and a jewel of very rich diamonds and in her head-dress were many and beautiful ones. Her girdle was of gold with large pendants.”
Katherine, who was the last in the “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” series of Henry’s queens, was also his second-longest legal spouse, married to him for three years and five months. The King’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon officially lasted 24 years; he was married to Anne Boleyn just short of three (although, arguably, they had been a couple for far longer); Jane Seymour died after a little more than a year; Anne of Cleves lasted six months; and Katheryn Howard was queen for a year and a half.
Although there is every indication that Henry and Katherine had a genuinely loving marriage, as the King’s health failed and the daily discomfort he felt ratcheted toward agony, he was convinced by the pro-Catholic faction of the court that his Queen was a dangerous heretic who plotted against him. Fortunately, a copy of the arrest warrant was leaked to Katherine by a well-wisher, and she used her quick wits to convince the King that in matters of faith, she looked only to him for answers and direction. Henry was mollified, and when the officials arrived to arrest the Queen, he berated them as “knaves and fools.” The King and his wife were perfect friends again and would remain so until he died, 28 January, 1547.
Not wasting time, the dowager queen sped into a marriage with Thomas Seymour after a widowhood of just six months. But what began in joy ended, as it so often did for women, in a slow, febrile death. Mary Seymour was a week old when the dowager queen succumbed to puerperal sepsis. Mary would die in early childhood, probably in the household of Katherine’s close friend, Catherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk.
After her death, Katherine lay in repose at Sudeley for a short time, then her body was wrapped in cere—a cloth treated with wax—and placed in a form-fitting lead coffin. Into the soft lead was impressed, “KP. Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge Henry the VIII and The wife of Thomas Lord of Sudely high Admy… of Englond And ynkle to Kyng Edward VI.” Miles Coverdale preached a sermon and Lady Jane Grey was the chief mourner at the funeral, which is believed to be the first protestant service of its kind in England. Afterward, the Queen was buried within the chapel.
Katherine rested beneath Sudeley Chapel for well over two centuries. But as the estate and church went to ruin above her, she remained largely unchanged, as was pronounced in an account by a Mr. Brookes of Reading of the opening of the Queen’s grave in the late 18th Century. This was provided to the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archeological Society, Vol. XIII (1895) by Brookes’ niece.
In the summer of the year 1782, “Mr. John Lucas (who occupied the land of Lord Rivers, whereon the ruins of the chapel stand) had the curiosity to rip up the top of the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the [Queen], but to his great surprise found the whole body wrapped in 6 or 7 seer cloths of linen, entire and uncorrupted, although it had lain there upwards of 230 years. His unwarrantable curiosity led him also to make an incision through the seer cloths which covered one of the arms of the corps, the flesh of which at that time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Lucas, who of his own hand opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it; and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.”
It was probably at this time that hair clippings and a swatch of fabric from the sleeve of Katherine’s burial dress were taken.
The account continued, “In the summer of the year following 1783, his Lordship’s business made it necessary for me and my son to be at Sudeley Castle, and on being told what had been done the year before by Lucas, I directed the earth to be once more removed to satisfy my own curiosity; and I found Lucas’s account of the coffin and corps to be just as he had represented them; with this difference, that the body was then grown quite fetid, and the flesh where the incision had been made was brown, and in a state of putrefaction; in consequence of the air having been let in upon it. The stench of the corps made my son quite sick, whilst he copied the inscription which is on the lead of the coffin; he went thro’ it, however, with great exactness. I afterwards decided that a stone slab should be placed over the grave to prevent any future and improper inspection, &c.”
This was not the last time that the corpse was disturbed. In 1792, her coffin was dug up by drunken revelers and reburied upside down. Twenty-five years later, Lord Chandos, who then owned Sudeley, wanted to move Katherine to a safer tomb. The exhumation was done by Rev. John Lates, who had undertaken the repair of the chapel, and Edmund T. Browne, a Winchcombe antiquary, whom, Transactions notes, wrote of this discovery on 18 July, 1817.
Browne reported that “after considerable search…the coffin was found bottom upwards in a walled grave, where it had been deposited…. It was then removed to the Chandos vault, and…we proceeded to examine the body; but the coffin having been so frequently opened, we found nothing but the bare skeleton, except a few pieces of sere cloth, which were still under the skull, and a dark-coloured mass, which proved to contain, when washed, a small quantity of hair which exactly corresponded with some I already had. The roots of the ivy, which you may remember grew in such profusion on the walls of the chapel, had penetrated into the coffin, and completely filled the greater part of it….
“We then had the different pieces of lead, which from time to time had been cut from the coffin, firmly nailed together, so as to present the original form of the coffin, and it was placed on two large flat stones by the side of that of [the former] Lord Chandos. Dr. Nash said, ‘The Queen must have been low of stature, as the lead which enclosed her corpse was but five feet four inches in length.’” Actually, a height of about 5 ft. 4 in. was considered middling for a woman of the 1500s and accords well with a woman who, when live, was neither described as tall or small.
Browne concluded, “The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altar-tomb, surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as it could be from the portraits which are extant.”
Safe under the alabaster image that returned stone flesh to her bared bones, Queen Katherine Parr’s restful eternity had at last begun.
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 then 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.”
After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”
Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”
During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.
“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….
“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….
“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”
Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.
JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω
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.”
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, thenewest, 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
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-Coberg-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 at 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.
In the United States, not one woman’s loss, but the losses of millions drove the mourning jewelry industry to its zenith. Between the years 1861-1865, the nation was locked in a horrific civil war that left thousands bereft of their loved ones. Soon after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The resulting wave of grief may well have been the “high-water mark” of the hair work phenomenon. (“High Water Mark” was a title bestowed upon the a copse of trees on the Gettysburg Battlefield by John B. Bachelder, the first government historian of the Gettysburg battlefield, who realized its significance during the intense fighting now known as Pickett’s Charge.)
The collective grief was dissipated almost fully during the 1870s. By the early 1880s, many young adults had only sketchy memories of war and children had none at all, and in the way of rising generations, they chafed against their elders’ mourning habits. “Young people began to look at their parent’s elaborate rituals with distaste, the fashion industry experienced a backlash of sorts, and [mourning] jewelry was once again smaller and not much on display,” noted the curators of the Museum of Funeral Customs.
The custom of mourning jewelry had petered out almost entirely before World War I, although sentimental items such as “Mizpah” pins and rings (“Mizpah is an emotional bond between people who are separated either physically or by death. Mizpah jewelery is worn to signify this bond. From Genesis 31:49 of the Bible. ‘And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,’”) and celluloid photo buttons and were quite popular, as was name jewelry—including appellations such as “Mother,” “Sweetheart,” “Sister,” and others)—that has never since lost its appeal.
The mid-20th century marked a volte-face in the way the Western world dealt with death. Two world wars yielded staggering fatalities, making a collective psychological withdrawal inevitable. In addition, in peacetime, fewer and fewer people were dying at home; they disappeared into hospitals only to be seen again in their coffins, already embalmed and prettified by strangers. The idea of touching the dead and retaining any biological material from them became repugnant to the majority of the population. Discussing death became culturally distasteful, if not taboo. Even as late as 1993, when I encountered my first glimpse of mourning jewelry, I wouldn’t have spoken of my interest in death and death customs to anyone except my most trusted friends. Ω
“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.
Speight instructed her readers to first dissolve one small piece of borax and one of soda in a half a teacup of hot water, and to soak the lock of hair for several minutes to remove “oil and impurities” before the hair could “take its place among the fine arts.” The cleaned hair was spread on a palette and scraped with a knife then the cleaning process was repeated with fresh borax and warm water. The hair was then spread on the palette again and the ragged ends chopped off.
Next, a curling iron heated by a candle flame or spirit lamp was used to shape lengths of hair into feather shapes, with Speight coaching her aspiring artists to hold the irons in position until the hair began to steam then allow it to cool before removal. The twist of the curl and the ends were then affixed with gum and these were then left under a small weight for an hour. Afterward, the curls were slightly moistened with water to touch up the shape, if needed, then remoistened with gum and left to dry. The process was repeated for a second and usually third curl.
To remove a curl from the palette, writes Speight, “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.” The curls were then arranged on an ivory, bone, or milk glass, cloth, or even a paper tablet. Speight goes on to teach her readers how to make the delicate gold-wire band and ribbons by twisting the wire around a needle, and the barley stalk by cutting the wire and using gum applied with a camel-hair brush to cement the shape. Similarly, the decorative band was constructed, using gummed paper as a ground, by carefully arranging the gold-wire band and split seed pearls. Finally, the decorative elements were carefully arranged amidst the curls. After drying, any extra gum was removed using spirits of wine.
The design thus assembled, the tablet would be inserted into the selected brooch setting by the jeweler. The final step, in some cases, was the engraving of a memorial or other inscription. Sometimes the entire process was handled by a single skilled artisan—such as the one who placed this advert in the London Illustrated News: “Hair jewellery, Artist in Hair. Dewdney begs to inform Ladies or Gentlemen that he beautifully makes, and elegantly mounts in gold, Hair Bracelets, Chains, Brooches, Rings, Pins, Studs, etc., and forwards the same, at about one-half the usual charge. A beautiful collection of specimens handsomely mounted kept for inspection. An illustrated book sent free. Dewdney, 172 Fenchurch St., London.” Ω