17th July – 28th Sept 2008

Antique meets Contemporary

Garnet set hair brooch converted from a clasp, c1780 - £1,150.

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About Us


Memento Mori



‘Death Jewels’ became particularly popular during the C16th, being worn as a remembrance of ones OWN inevitable death. It was expressed in art, literature and jewellery. Plague, bad sanitation, poor medical treatment and wars resulted in their being many deaths and many realised death could come knocking at any time.

Various motifs were used including skeletons, skulls, cross bones and coffin. The late C16th early C17th rings tended to have the skull enamelled onto a flat bezel. By the C18th designs were becoming more intricate with three dimensional enamelled skulls being produced which in some cases could swivel. Fashions changed quickly and the skulls forming the bezel were loosing popularity by the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714


This theme was popular as it expressed how our time could run out at any time.

The scythe and hour lass were popular symbols. In the C16th it was common for watches to be turned into pendants, this emphasised the importance of time. Skulls, skeletons and coffins were also popular to express the passing of time.

Gradually over time from the C16th Memento Mori Jewellery was adapted to REFLECT THE LOSS OF A SPECIFIC LOVED ONE, referred to as mourning jewellery.

Early mourning jewellery was very similar in design to Memento Mori jewellery. Many would leave instructions in their wills for a quantity of rings to be made and distributed to specific people in remembrance of the deceased.

Early rings would be simple in design. Plain gold band with a skull, bones, skeleton depicted in black and white enamel. Inscriptions, dates and initials would be engraved on the inside of the band Inscriptions on the outside of the band – often in raised gold – were influenced by French design. This was popular until the Neo-classical period in the last quarter of the C18th. It is during this time that the jewellery becomes more delicate and concentrates less on ones own morality but more on love and sentiment. By this time more people were dying at a very young age and consequently young love and mourning were often felt at the same time.

Neo classical influences in mourning jewellery in the eighteenth century
Virginal and unmarried states were represented by white enamel or ivory and by 1750 had also become popular for memorial jewellery. Neo-classical fashions were particularly popular at this time.In 1742, Edward Young published “Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality” which fuelled the popularity of memorial jewellery.
The shocking motif of a skull representing death was replaced by more subtle representations. These included scenes of sorrow and the contemplation of death such as – standing by an urn with or standing alone, a sorrowful women. These images became quite elaborate, decorated with seed pearls and gold detail.
Hair was often incorporated into designs – sometimes incorporated as a tree representing the “Tree of Life” often seated with a spaniel representing comfort.

Popular Mourning Motifs
“Not lost but gone forever”
“Fate lost her early to the pitying skies”
“I have your portrait strongly”

Crystal covered hair pendants with gold initials over the hair were popular as they were made to commemorate Charles I. Royal blue or turquoise silk decoration denoted rank.

Heart shaped mourning pendants start to be seen in the middle of the C18th. The most common design being an enamel border around a crystal under which a lock of hair was placed. Other popular subjects were classical scenes painted on ivory or enamel. Through allegorical subjects people were really looking at death from the side and reflecting on the sorrow that it left behind, rather than staring death straight in the face.

Hair started to be incorporated in the picture rather than just as a lock of hair under the crystal. Hair would be used to make it look like a tree either as the tree of life or as a weeping willow. Brown sepia or grey was used to draw the rest of the picture and colour the hair. Pictures may have included a young widow stricken with grief leaning against the tomb under the willow tree. Urns and brooks symbolised eternity.
Mottos were also used such as “not lost but gone before” .

The Painting of the pictures is often referred to as “en grisaille” ie painting in one colour, normally grey

This style of jewellery continued until the Victorian period when death and remembrance became extremely popular. Queen Victoria was very strict regarding memorial jewellery and unfortunately led to the public no longer enjoying memorial jewellery because of the high mortality rate and spending most of their lives in mourning, but also the design became less intricate.

An interesting example of mourning jewellery from the early period is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It commemorates the death of Princess Amelia on 2 November 1810. She was not only the youngest but also the favourite daughter of George III. The initial A is surmounted by a crown on black enamel and bordered by white enamel (white enamel was used since C17th to reflect virginity) bearing the inscription ‘remember me’ This sad loss is said to have contributed to the madness of the king.

Coiled Serpent
Symbol of eternity
When associated with turquoise seen as a talisman – protection against poison or evil spirits

Used as early as the C16th but used extensively in the C19th.
Whitby jet documented as being exported to Italy in the C11th.
French Jet
An imitation of Whitby jet – not jet at all but glass which shows purple tinges around the edges

Romantic remembrance and physical link to a loved one
C18th images included a weeping willow made of hair then plaited and incorporated into the jewel. By Victorian period hair jewellery was a fashion in its own right.
Many manufacturers of hair jewellery were unscrupulous and substituted the original hair for a strangers or even worse used horse hair. Popular books to consult were
“Lock of Hair “ by Alexanna Speight, “A Jewellers Book of Patterns in Hairwork” by William Halford. By 1860’s and 70’s not just enough to incorporate the hair into a design but now popular to make a whole item of jewellery with hair. Particular popular in France as well as England

Lyre motif – attribute of Apollo as patron of poetry, music and leader of the Muses
Apollo was one of the 12 gods of Olympus and was the embodiment of the classical Greek Spirit, standing for the rational and civilised side of man’s nature. He is portrayed as the most handsome and physically fit.

Popular motifs and materials used for mourning were
Pearls – associated with tears
Serpent – associated with eternity often appeared around the edge of bezels.
The forget-me-not – popular from the 1830s often carved in black and white onyx and then set into brooches and rings.

Now & Then runs from 17th July to 28th September 2008. Salts Mill is open weekdays from 10am – 5.30pm and weekends 10am – 6pm. For further information call 01274 599790.

Artists taking part in Memento Mori are: Melanie Bilenker; Constanze Schreiber; Claudia Stebler.
Memento Mori Antique pieces
Other themes: Sentiment & Sex; Power & Politics; The Lighter Side.