What do you think about mourning jewelry? In the Netherlands, it becomes more and more popular to press the ashes of a loved one into a small diamond and set that in a jewel. Or use hair in mourning jewelry as a remembrance of the one who passes away.
We know the tradition of wearing the wedding ring of your deceased partner next to your own wedding ring, but using ashes or hair is a bit new in the Netherlands.
And it is not only the jewelry you have or have designed as a memory of the deceased but also the jewelry that is given to someone in her grace. And that jewelry explains a lot of the life, of the circumstances of living, the status, and the wealth of the person. To make it easier, also this type of grave finds we call in this blog ‘mourning jewelry’.
So curious as I am I start to search for other examples of mourning jewelry and it seems that this custom is rather old. Let me tell you what I found out.
The Lady of Simpelveld: jewelry of the afterlife
‘Jewelry is important, even in the afterlife?’ I bet you wonder what a funny (to say the least) statement is? Is it an important statement?
Jewelry is a part of your emotions. It is a way of life. Do you wear jewelry or not? Maybe you want to dress up? Do you use jewelry to look more beautiful? Or show your status? Are you married and wear a wedding ring. Or are you rich and wear a lot of gold and diamonds? Whatever reason to wear what type of jewelry, but jewelry is important.
Look at your jewelry and we know who you are. Whether you are rich or poor (look at the used material). Modern or more traditional? Whether you love minimalistic or statement jewelry. Maybe you wear personalized jewelry. In that case, we know how many children you have. Or their names, or the name of your husband. In every case, jewelry is important!
You can ‘read’ a woman by looking at her jewelry. And when you want to stay known after your death, make sure that there is jewelry in your grave. An archeologist can determine what kind of person you were. Also for him, your jewelry is important, certainly in the afterlife.
Jewelry is important for The Lady of Simpelveld
Last week I visit a world-famous museum in Leiden/The Netherlands, called the Oudheidkundig Museum. You find there all kinds of archeological artifacts from all times.
One of the artifacts that impressed me most is the ‘ash grave’ of the Lady of Simpelveld. And the jewelry that archeologists find in that grave. I realize that her jewelry tells the world so much about her, even after so many years.
The history of the ashgrave
When the Romans conquered the Netherlands a completely new way of burial emerged. The urban elite got buried in or rather under large stone monuments, decorated with sculptures and Latin inscriptions. Those inscriptions tell about the virtues and career of the deceased. Such monuments are mostly found around the roads to and from the cities.
The ashes of the deceased person were put in a glass urn, sometimes with a lead capsule around it. According to her or his status in life with the urn, a lot of rich gifts were buried too, like jewelry, amber statues, creme bottles, wine glasses, or glass plates. On the basis of these gifts, you already can see that jewelry is important, also in the Roman Times.
In the countryside, the wealthy owners of large farmhouses (we call them villae) are buried near their home, in large stone coffins, painted or sculpted on the inside. The inside of such a coffin looked like the home where the deceased lived. And if a soldier was buried, his coffin looked like a Roman house and the soldier was sculptured while lying next to a meal and some alcoholic drink.
The tombs or monuments with the inside of their home and all the gifts alongside, tells us a lot about how they lived, and what they liked or loved. But certainly, you can see that also in those days jewelry is important, not only because of the memory of that jewelry but also as a status symbol.
The grave of the Lady of Simpelveld
In December 1930 a man from Simpelveld (a village in the South of the Netherlands) works in his field. During the digging he finds a large solid stone, that looks like a big box or coffin. The outside is plain and rather ugly.
He asks a professional to look at his find. And he discovers that this is an ash grave and there is jewelry in it. The biggest surprise comes when they open this grave. The inside is decorated with reliefs, that represent a complete interior of a house. With chairs, cabinets, a birth stool, bottles, and much more.
On the floor are ashes from the lady, a mirror, and jewelry, like an earring, a beaded necklace, and some rings. This lady definitely shows us that she thinks jewelry is important. And the biggest surprise is that on one of the sides of the grave the ‘lady of the house’ is sculptured. She lays on a ‘dinner bed’. By now the archeologists determine that she is a Roman or Gallo-Roman lady.
We don’t know her name, but she died aged 35-50 years around 170 AC. From DNA research we know that she lived a good life and never had to work hard.
Her jewelry is important and speaks for her.
She is or rather was a rich lady. Who else can afford a grave like this? Besides that, this is the only grave (until now) found with relief inside the coffin.
The grave contains a golden necklace, a golden earring, three golden rings (two rings with gemstones and one with an inscription). There is a beaded necklace, a silver mirror, scissors, writing material, and 2 bottles of glass and china.
We know by researching the artifacts that not only she is a rich lady. But she has great taste because the jewelry is exquisite. Made of high-quality material (gold and gemstones) and great workmanship.
And when you realize that there are holes in the ash grove. So there was more jewelry in this coffin. Then you are as impressed as I am about this find. And can you imagine that even in those days, just like now, jewelry means emotion, more than enough to take your jewelry box into your grave? Now and then… jewelry is important!
Her coffin leads the way.
Her ash grave is not the first grave that the worker finds in his field. There are 2 more, but they are empty. The archeologists assume that her house is not far away from where she is buried.
Seven years later they find the remnants of a large Roman villa a few hundred meters from the coffin. One of the many that are found in the surrounds of Simpelveld, where the Romans lived a long time ago.
And due to the reliefs in the coffin of the Lady of Simpelveld, we know what the furniture of such a villa looks like. They are made of wood and wood does not last such a long time. So her coffin does not only tells something about her. But also about her house, her style of living, and her status.
Restoration of the grave of Simpelveld
In 2021 the Museum voor Oudheidkunde in Leiden/The Netherlands started the restoration of this grave of Simpelveld. That is a rather tricky operation since the coffin can fall apart. Luckily until now, it did not happen.
The restoration people found a remarkable object in the coffin: a Dutch ‘dubbeltje’ of 1971. A dubbeltje is a Dutch coin, from before the Euro Era, and had a value of 10 cents. It is considered (yes, call me chauvinistic) the most beautiful coin in the world. I owe ven a bracelet, made of dubbeltjes.
It is sure that the Lady of Simpelveld did not owe this type of coin, so there is no other explanation than that a restorator of the grave in earlier times, left it there as a souvenir for the next restorators?
There is more ‘heavenly’ jewelry to be found
The jewelry found in this grave of the Lady of Simpelveld is just one example. We have found jewelry in graves of kings and queens, like in the grave of Tutankhamon. Or in graves of less important people in those days. But all the finds show us the importance of jewelry to show your status, your wealth. And for us in our time we learn a bit more about their living conditions, their taste, the techniques they knew to make beautiful things.
And we know by studying the grave finds about the society and history of that time. Sometimes we discover that the grave jewelry, like in the Phoenician graves is the predecessor of our own jewelry, of our own techniques in making jewelry. Jewelry is important to understand the old world better.
This is just one example of ‘mourning jewelry’ or ‘grave finds’. But let us now talk about jewelry made of memories of the deceased or made of belongings of the deceased.
Mourning jewelry during times
From the Middle Ages in Europe mourning jewelry is worn. Most of the time it is a piece of hair set into a pendant for a necklace or a memory ring when a king dies (King Charles I of England). But also Queen Victoria, Napoleon de Bonaparte, or Admiral Nelson owns memory mourning jewelry.
Mourning jewelry during the Georgian Period
In the Georgian Period in England, which lasted from 1714 to 1837 the special remembrance jewelry had dark and a bit macabre themes, like skeletons, coffins, and gravediggers. And the color black was introduced for this type of jewelry.
The jewelry was designed and produced as a reminder of the fact that death can not be avoided, it is a part of life. So you better live that one life to the full and don’t waste time. It is also called ‘memento mori’ jewelry.
In the Victorian Times…
The death motifs of the Georgian Period changed in the Victorian Age. Mourning jewelry was a memory of the deceased and the motifs were about grieving. In jewelry, they used willow branches, dark clouds, helping angels, or the initials of your loved one, to express grief and have a dear memory for comfort.
The dress code when you were in mourning was strict, especially for women. The first two to three years after the death of your husband or very close family you only could wear black clothing (‘deep mourning stage’). After that period you could wear dark colors instead of black. The black color was used for making jewelry too.
In the Netherlands, the traditional people wore black clothing and jewelry, also for two to three years, especially when their husband died. I know a story that a lady got a garnet necklace as a wedding present from her husband. She was very keen on it and loved the color.
But after the death of her husband, she could not wear it anymore, because of the color. With pain in her heart, she gave the treasure to her eldest daughter and bought black jet jewelry to wear.
Queen makes mourning jewelry popular
Queen Victoria is one of the first persons in the Victorian Period that wears mourning jewelry made from hair. Hair is popular to use in mourning jewelry because it has chemicals that make it possible that hair does not decay and keeps its substance for ages and ages. And hair is so personal that keeping it in your mourning jewelry feels like the diseased person is always with you.
Making mourning jewelry with hair is a blessing in the sky for the old wig makers that don’t get any work after the popularity of wearing wigs declines. In the Victorian Period, you cannot be seen with a powdered wig, without looking ridiculous. While in the 17th and 18th centuries you really cannot leave your home without one. That is… when you are of ‘noble blood’.
… But only for the well to do class.
Hair artists and goldsmiths create little miracles with hair, gold, gemstones, and pearls. These pieces of jewelry are very expensive. Around the middle of the Victorian Period, some tutorials are available for the lesser gods around the goldsmiths. They make lesser expensive mourning jewelry that becomes available for the lower classes too.
Some of the hair jewelry is made from braids or pieces of hair the artists buy from poor women, but most of the used hair comes from family, friends, and the deceased persons themselves.
Jewelry of hair becomes fashion.
In the 19th-century women start to make their own hair jewelry or mourning jewelry at home. In America, there is a magazine with patterns and guidelines on how to make a hair jewel. Most of the women can not afford expensive findings so they use wooden beads covered with hair and beaded on a string of hair.
There is a reason for the uprising of the home hair-making industry. Because you never know for sure whether the goldsmith really uses the hair from your loved one. And making it yourself is a better choice when you don’t trust someone to do it for you.
Russian mourning jewelry
On an exhibition in the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, there are a few pieces of this type of jewelry on display that are owned by Russian noblemen and the family of the Russian Tsar. Impressive brooches, necklaces, and even embroidered handkerchieves as mourning jewelry are seen there. Just have a look at the images in this blog post and I bet that you must admit that these hair jewels and mourning jewelry are exquisite.
Mourning jewelry is a very exceptional type of jewelry. This type of jewelry nowadays is not to be seen so much, or maybe you don’t know that a certain pendant is the former wedding ring of a husband. Still, a lady wants to look beautiful and to feel great. But do you know what kind of jewelry looks best on you? What type of necklace makes you look best. What earrings match perfectly with your eyes?
To make it short: do you know what jewelry accentuates your best features? I’ll bet you have so many questions about this subject. And FlorenceJewelshop published a practical PDF where you can find all the answers. And in case you cannot find your answer you can email me and I help you out (https://florencejewelshop.com/contact/)
The PDF is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send it to.
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