Secret Message in Jewellery Part 4 - Memento Mori, Something to Remember Me By

As we’ve learned throughout this series, there was often a hidden layer of meaning to jewellery worn by Georgians and Victorians. Brooches could be telling you the wearer was open to flirting, lockets enclosed painted eyes signalling secret lovers, and a rainbow of gemstones might spell out your love’s name in a jewelled code.

But sometimes the ornaments were darker in meaning and method- the hair of a dead loved one, the tooth of a lost child, an errant eyeball…

Baby teeth in lily of the valley brooch

This is Part 4 of a 4 part series on symbolism in jewellery. Here's Part 1 - Lover's Eyes Part 2 - Hand Symbols , and Part 3 - Acrostic Jewellery

Memento mori were popular since Ancient Rome. Originally the "memento" (reminder) was just, like,- "hey buddy, remember? You're gonna die someday". These memento mori (MM) weren't a reminder of a loved one, but of your own mortality. Skulls and skeletons abounded- they were beautifully macabre.

french memento mori ring skull book

Death was ever present; sickness, war, childbirth, childhood - all took lives in tolls we cannot fathom today. Originally the MM may have intended you to remember to live life in a good way and to the fullest, an ancient YOLO, if you will!

The latin writing on the mosaic below is translated as "Know Thyself" ie. recognise your mortality.

Black and white ancient roman moscaic of skeleton in repose with latin words saying Know Thyself. A memento Mori

But certainly, Christianity co-opted the memento mori and it became "behave, because you may be snatched to the pearly gates any time for your judgement".

Vanitas paintings are a perfect example of this. They scoffed at the vanity of thinking life was important in the eyes of the heavens - Death is coming, and it is eternal! 

Below is an amazzzing example, "Vanitas" by Phillipe de Champaigne, 1671. Not shy with the symbolism, our Phillipe... hourglass, skull, wilting flower- very subtle!

Vanitas painting by Phillipe de Champaigne Memento mori

Hair, Teeth and Eyes... something to remember me by

While MM are fascinating in themselves ( here are some good sources for if you're interested), I wanna chat about the Georgians and Victorians popping parts of their dearly deceased into the actual jewellery!

Hair rings, teeth brooches, eye accessories! That's another level, my guys, let's chat...

The Georgians took a more personal, symbolic approach to death mementos. They began to centre more around family & personal life, so the mementos they carried were of loved ones, of their own grief. The skeletons gave way to symbols of weeping willows and urns. But the Georgians began incorporating hair of their dearly departed! Wig making was on the downturn so hair artists were at a loose end. Hair was set behind glass in intricate swirls, and woven in to hollow tubes, examples of both can be seen in this Victorian brooch:

Hair work brooch with swirled hair and woven hair

The hair might be woven in to tiny braids and set in rings etc:

Victorian hair ring


Or even ground in to a powder and reconstituted as a pigment for painting designs with. 

It's important to note that giving locks of hair was a symbol of affection (both familial and romantic), so all hair jewellery doesn't exclusively mean mourning jewellery. Without an accompanying death symbol it's not possible to say if antique hair jewellery was given to a brother going to war, or woven from a dead wife's hair

Cry like a Queen

The Victorians loved to indulge in some heavy handed sentimentality. There was one aspect which Queen Victoria herself, was a master of: prolonged and showy mourning.

Traditionally a wife would wear widow’s weeds (the formal mourning dress of widows) for approximately 2 years... Queen Vic wore hers in mourning for her husband-cousin, Albert, for some 40 odd years. Mourning took up most of her life... but she did find some time for violently colonising India and engineering famines for the Irish #girlboss.

queen victoria in extended mourning widows weeds dressed in black

Because of Victoria's all black aesthetic (Johnny Cash wishes he could) Victorians thought black was the business. They were less subtle with their grief, and later, with the advent of photography, almost made it theatrical. Here are the Princesses, the Queen's daughters, photographed clustered around a bust of their father showing their sadness.

Victorian princesses mourning round a bust of their father Albert


A shade more gruesome than hair, teeth also featured in many Victorian pieces. 

Bar brooch with human teeth swag

Just because we call them “pearly whites” doesn’t make them pearls, babes!  Sometimes these were baby teeth of a living child... sometimes they were mementos of the dead. At all times they were lavishly creepy.

baby tooth ring

Victorian cushion brooch with baby teeth in radiating pattern

Eyes for you

Glass eyes also make a rare appearance in some jewellery, but much less frequently than teeth or hair. Glass eyes were, and still are, very collectable - even without a be-jewelled setting.

Below is a silver Arts and Crafts era glass eye pin, and an awesome gold Victorian memento mori ring with a prosthetic eyeball.

Victorian Memento ring with glass eye set in gold

If you are diggin all this (awww you get it too <3 ),  you’ll love the bejewelled corpses of the Catacomb Saints as photographed by Paul Koudounaris. Granted, they’re not Georgian or Victorian (they're considerably older), but they are magnificent! One day I’ll see their macabre, decayed splendour for myself and be totally awed, and a little scared, and love it! But for now I've bought his book of their images, Heavenly Bodies

Catacomb saints the catacomb martyrs jewelled skeletons 

On the other hand, if this stuff makes you wonder what madness compelled those dreary Victorians, I may need to introduce you to our modern equivalents of carrying ashes in necklace urns, and encasing deceased pet hair in glass or resin...

modern urn pendant

modern pet hair memento mori

I've personally bought 2 pieces of jewellery in memory of my Grandmother's family. Whatever fascination the Victorians had with memory of the departed, we may have sanitised it- but we still got it!