With high mortality rates a fact of life in the Victorian era, so too did mourning become a part of everyday life. Death was so close to home that in order to deal with loss and grief, the Victorians developed a complex set of rituals dedicated to the art of mourning.
One of the more fascinating histories of Victorian jewelry is that of jet. Jet is a fossilized driftwood, smooth and lightweight with an intense black color, that can be found in the seaside cliffs of Whitby, England.
The most prolific patron of this sought-after “gemstone” was Queen Victoria. In an era that called for heavy and voluminous clothing, jet’s lightweight characteristics made it the perfect choice for large, eye-catching jewelry pieces that could be worn comfortably.
When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria took to wearing carved jet in remembrance of her lost love, making it the unspoken practice for all to accessorize their black mourning fashions with jet jewelry.
As our previous post about Buckle Jewelry touched on, the Victorians were a sentimental lot. They were accustomed to losing loved ones to disease, workplace accidents, and war, and so they built a culture that helped them to cope with these losses.
In addition to buckle jewelry, lockets and perfume buttons were worn in remembrance of a departed loved one. Or in the case of wartime, they were exchanged between a soldier and his long-distant sweetheart, as a token of fidelity and reassurance during indefinite periods apart.
Bring That Back: Victorian Buckle Jewelry
As All Souls Day draws nigh, it seems fitting to shed light on the Victorians’ rich tradition of remembrance. In a time when one’s grasp on life was especially tenuous, mortality was keenly felt. Husbands lost their wives to childbirth, parents lost their infants to infection, women lost their men to the dangers of the industrial workplace. In the wake of such ubiquitous loss, the Victorians clung to a number of mourning traditions, which granted solace through remembrance. Postmortem photography, hairwreaths and jewelry made from the locks of departed loved ones, and the customary donning of black were all ways in which the Victorians honored, mourned, and coped with the loss of their dead.
Perhaps a more subtle mourning custom was the wearing of buckle jewelry. By its very form, the buckled belt suggests the never-ending circle of eternity. For the Victorians, it embodied a sentiment of enduring love and loyalty that transcended the grave. It was a gesture of devotion that adorned bracelets, rings, brooches, and lockets, many of which were personalized with a concealed lock of hair or an engraving of the deceased’s initials and death date.
Victorian-style buckle jewelry is timeless in its beauty and appeal, but the powerful sentiment behind its origins makes this tradition all the worthier of preservation.