I have a girlfriend who loves to wear the color black. She is always fashionably dressed with her beautiful, auburn hair either pulled back in a sleek ponytail or relaxed in soft curls around her face – whatever her mood of the day. It is not uncommon to see her dressed head to toe in black, complete with just-off-the-runway, high-heeled boots and tasteful, artistic black jewelry. She has a vogue sophistication about her that I truly admire.
Many people love to wear black for several reasons. It is definitely the most slimming color, compliments other colors well, and is fashionably appropriate to wear any place you go. Except for maybe a spring wedding.
Back in the Victorian era, women actually did not have a choice to wear any color but black for a minimum of two years after their husband passed.
The Victorian era started in 1837 when Victoria became the Queen of England at the very young age of 18. She was young, pretty, and quite admired throughout the land. Whatever she wore became the latest fashion trend.
The Romantic Period
In 1840, she married her first cousin Prince Albert. The next 20 years were known as the Romantic Period, reflecting Queen Victoria’s youth and marriage. This period can be described as artistic, literary, and intellectual, with an emphasis on emotions and sentimentality.
Queen Victoria in her wedding dress and veil from 1840, painted in 1847 as an anniversary gift for Prince Albert
The jewelry of that time was strongly influenced by nature. Flowers, leaves, branches, and berries were common motifs. Seed pearls were often used with flowers being the most popular seed pearl design during this period. The jewelry created and manufactured during her reign from 1837 to 1901 became known as Victorian jewelry.
Here is a beautiful romantic gold Victorian brooch with seed pearls that I came across in my hunt for a small piece of authentic Victorian jewelry to add to my vintage jewelry collection:
After 21 years of marriage and nine children, her beloved Prince Albert died at age 42 of typhoid fever in 1861. The Queen then went into a deep depression and mourning, dressing only in the color black for the remainder of her life. She required everyone at the court to also wear mourning attire during social occasions for three years.
The five daughters of Prince Albert wearing mourning black dresses and posing for a portrait with his statue following his death in 1861
The Grand Period
The Romantic Period ended suddenly and the Mid or High Victorian Period began. It is also known as the Grand Period (1861-1885).
Victorian society dictated very strict rules for observing rituals related to death including the length of time one must mourn and the way one must dress during that period of mourning. A widow was expected to mourn her husband for a minimum of two years.
When a widow was in deep mourning which lasted one full year, she was expected to wear clothing made entirely of black crepe, a dull fabric that had no sheen so as not to reflect any light.
Jewelry was not usually worn at all that first year. After one year of deep mourning, a widow would go into half-mourning and could wear black silk. Huge demand for black material led to the development of a cotton-silk mix which was less costly. It became known as Albert crape.
During half-mourning, the color of cloth lightened as mourning continued, going from black to gray, then mauve, and finally white. Jewelry could also now be worn.
Here is a black glass mourning pin from this period with a simple C-clasp on the back:
After the two years of mourning were over, widows could freely wear any color. However, many imitated Queen Victoria and wore black for the rest of their lives.
Wearing the wrong kind of jewelry during half-mourning could be socially disastrous. Therefore, the Grand Period became a significant time for the mourning jewelry business. Much of it was made from a variety of black materials. Some of the most common were jet, French jet, vulcanite, gutta-percha, and bog oak.
Queen Victoria decreed that only jet jewelry was to be worn at the court. People followed the court fashion, creating a new etiquette code in which only jet jewelry, such as this 19th-century jet brooch, was appropriate for mourning:
Jet, a type of dark black lignite (where the term “jet black” originates), is derived from decaying wood under extreme pressure. It was mined in Whitby, England and was formed there when waterlogged driftwood from ancient trees sunk to the ocean floor and became embedded in layers of sediment. The pressure from these layers converted it into a hard, black fossilized coal-like material that is lightweight and quite fragile.
Here is a sample of jet:
Jet is considered a minor gemstone since it is a geological material. It is easy to carve, making it perfectly suitable for making jewelry, although it did require a skilled craftsman to keep it from breaking when they carved it. If you own a piece of genuine jet, you may be able to see the texture or grain of the wood in it.
The demand for jet became so great that the cliffside over the town of Whitby was in danger of collapsing. Mining for jet then became illegal in Whitby causing a shortage. Jet was very expensive to buy and was often worn, not only as a display of grief but also as a sign of wealth or status. Less expensive substitutions began to emerge for making black jewelry.
French jet is faceted black glass that is heavier and colder to the touch when compared to jet. It became the primary source of moderately-priced mourning jewelry. Most of it was produced in Bohemia (Czech Republic). Jet was easily imitated with black glass because jet could be polished to look like glass.
Vulcanite, now known as ebonite, was a brand name for very hard rubber. Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), an American self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer, discovered it after converting natural rubber through a chemical process into a more durable material which he used to make clothing, life preservers, rubber shoes and a large variety of other rubber goods. He patented it in 1844. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was founded in 1898 which was named after him.
19th-century portrait of Charles Goodyear
Vulcanite is most commonly dark brown or black. During the mid to late 1800s, it was often used to imitate jet during the peak of the mourning jewelry craze.
Here are a few examples of 19th-century vulcanite jewelry:
Although it can be polished, vulcanite can never look as glossy as actual jet. Vulcanite is also molded rather than carved. It was less expensive than jet, making it more accessible to the lower and middle classes. Unfortunately, it has a low tolerance to sunlight and can fade from black to brown with repeated exposure to the light.
Another alternative to jet was a hard, black or brown, natural rubber-like substance called gutta-percha. It is derived from the sap of trees in Southeast Asia, mainly from Malaysia. The term “gutta-percha” comes from the plant’s name in Malay, getah perca, translating as percha sap.
Gutta-percha became a household word during the second half of the 1800s as it was used for domestic and industrial purposes. In 1847, ornate furniture began to be made from it by the Gutta-Percha Company. It was also used for making mourning jewelry because of its dark color and easy to mold into beads or other shapes.
Bog oak was another economic alternative to jet. Bog oak is not actually a specific species of trees but rather, it is a term used to describe oak that has been buried in a peat bog for thousands of years. It is typically found in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Because there is such low oxygen content in the bog, it protects the wood from decaying. The peat around the oak provides an acidic condition. Over time, as you can see in the image below, gives the oak a dark brown or nearly black color:
The fossilization hardens the wood making it easy to carve but it cannot be highly polished like jet. Bog oak became popular when jet was in high demand and a lower-priced alternative was necessary.
Jewelry made from the hair of the deceased became another popular trend during the mid-1800s as a way to remember a loved one. Memorial mourning brooches were made by weaving small locks of the deceased person’s hair into a form of hair art, mounting it on an agate or mother of pearl base, and then covering it with domed glass.
Cameos or lockets holding a lock of the deceased’s hair were often worn by the wealthy. Gold mourning rings with a ringlet of hair enclosed in a locket setting were given to family and friends.
The trend of wearing hair jewelry also caught on in the U.S. as soldiers were fighting in the Civil War. Before soldiers left home, they would leave a lock of their hair for their families. When they died at war, the hair would be made into a piece of mourning jewelry such as a gold locket engraved with In Memory Of and their initials to be kept close to their loved one’s heart.
The Aesthetic Period
In 1885 the Grand Period ended and the Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period began. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy associated with the reflection of nature and art and the appreciation of beauty. Tradition was challenged and people moved toward having more refined artistic taste, whether it be fashion or the decorative arts. This period reflected a reaction against the Grand Period.
Thankfully, Queen Victoria relaxed her strict rules of mourning. By the early 1900s, mourning fashions were completely abandoned. The Aesthetic Period ended when Queen Victoria passed away at the age 81 in January of 1901.
My auburn-haired girlfriend would have fit in perfectly during Victorian times. I can just imagine her wearing black silk, accessorizing with a vulcanite necklace, jet earrings, and bog oak bracelet. And her runway Victorian high-heeled black boots, of course.
*Hair brooch – photo credit: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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