A lovely client has just ordered a pair of beautiful hand carved Victorian Whitby jet bead earrings from me. Whilst she was placing the order we got chatting about mourning jewellery and she very kindly recommended a couple of books and a film that had inspired her love of mourning jewellery. Whilst I’m not a collector, I’ve always been facinated by mourning jewellery and quite recently two pieces of mourning jewellery belonging to the Bronte sisters have turned up. So, off I went down an inspirational rabbit hole – lets take a closer look at mourning jewellery and specifically that owned by the Bronte Sisters.
We tend to view mourning jewellery as a very Victorian concept, as it reached it’s peack of popularity and fashion following the death of Prince Albert. On the death of her husband, Queen Victoria threw herself bodily into the act of mourning and created a an instant and veritable fever around mourning jewellery and specifically Whitby Jet mourning jewellery. It became so popular that demand for Whitby Jet mourning jewellery outstripped supply. The clever French glass artisans saw a gap in the market and came up with a cheaper alternative that could be mass-produced. Known as French Jet or Parisian Jet it is in fact Black glass. If you’re intrested in Whitby Jet and it’s substitutes, please check out my blog piece on it or indeed the lovely earrings I make from reclaimed antique and vintage Jet beads.
Despite the Victorians popularising mourning jewellery and taking it to the mass market, it had already been around since, at least the middle ages. It had also been very popular amoungst those who could afford it during the Regency era. On her death in 1817, Jane Austen’s Sister Cassandra had a mourning brooch made from locks of Jane’s hair.
Prior to the Regency period, hair jewellery was not popular, as there was concern that the hair in the jewellery would not be the loved one’s but that belonging to a stranger, as it might have been swapped. A concern that had mostly dissapeared by the time of the Regency and Victorian eras. Hair workers were highly skilled and sought after. Their work was often very intricate and delicate.
Whilst mourning jewellery and specifically hair jewellery feels very gothic and slightly macarbre, in our modern world, it was clearly a very loving and personal way of creating a memorial to a lost loved one. Without photgraphs and with the cost and inaccuracies of hand-painted portraits, it is easy to see how a piece of hair jewellery would provide a lasting and very personal way of keeping loved ones close, even after death. You could wear hair jewellery in plain sight of conceal it under layers of clothing, carrying an actual piece of your loved one with you, wherever you went. Mortality rates were very high during these periods and most people lost children, spouses, friends and loved ones and with death being such a constant presence, it’s not suprising that people took comfort by memorialising their dear departeds in such a manner.
The Bronte Sisters were no strangers to death. Their home in Haworth overlooked the graveyard and their father conducted funeral after funeral as typhus, cholera and consumption raged through the town. They lost their mother whilst still children and then also their two eldest sisters died in childhood. Their brother; Branwell died as a young adult, shortly to be followed by Emily and then Anne, and Charlotte died just months after her marriage. Consequently, it’s no suprise that there are several pieces of mourning jewellery belonging to and memorialising the Bronte sisters.
Most recently, a small ring was discovered in an attic, it was engraved with Charlotte Bronte’s details and is believed to have been given to her lifelong friend; Ellen Nussey on Charlotte’s death. The ring features a small hinged panel which opens to reaveal a plaited lock of Charlotte’s hair.
There is also this very famous and beautful Amethyst bracelet made from plaited strands of Emily and Anne’s hair.
The Bronte Parsonage hold a collection of jewellery and it contatins two rings that hold Emily’s hair and Emily and Anne’s plaited hair. The mourning rings are top right and bottom left in the picture and the one on the top right has a panel that opens to reveal the hair.
There is also a necklace made from Emily’s hair and two bracelets simply fashioned from hair, one belonging to Anne and one belonging to Charlotte.
The Bronte Parsonage & Bronte Society also have a Jet bangle that belonged to Anne and indeed it was noted as a piece of evidence that the Landseer Portrait was of the three Bronte sisters. In it ‘Anne’ is wearing a Jet bangle with a bow fastening very similar to that which she owned.
To close I must say that I totally understand the comfort that mourning jewellery gave it’s wearers and it may even prove useful in detecting ‘lost’ portraits. However, the rumor that Charlotte mended her mourning shoes with Anne & Emily’s hair is nonsense. It as a mistake in the reading of an exhibit label that was then tweeted around the world!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little look at the Bronte Sisters mourning jewellery.
Thanks for reading & have a lovely day!