Conveying a sentiment
Memorial jewellery can be many things, but it is always deeply personal. As a jeweller, I find it truly a privilege to work with a client to create these important pieces. The best jewellery always has a story to tell—discovering this story and how to translate it into a design involves a great deal of discussion, empathy, creativity, emotion, and often tears. Both the client and the designer are affected, as painful and joyful memories are brought to the fore.
Often, memorial jewellery is simply the re-design of jewellery belonging to a loved one. We have all made jewellery using stones or metal from a grandfather’s watch fob or mother’s treasured diamond wedding ring. The sentiment is all about knowing the provenance of the materials and being able to give them new life. At our studio, we have combined three or more generations in single pieces and they have their story to tell. I do admit to some queasiness, however, when a client comes in with great-uncle’s gold teeth to use in a new ring!
Some memorial jewellery is subtle and its message is only known to the wearer. Other pieces are made to invite inquiry from the observer and be more obvious in nature.
Memorial jewellery has a long history—reliquaries, mourning jewellery, memento mori, and woven hair jewellery are all examples. While they may not be as common in contemporary times due, perhaps, to Western culture’s aversion to the idea of death and dying, they can be traced back to the 4th century. Many religions celebrate saints by enclosing their relics in elaborate bejewelled reliquaries or instruments used in the sacraments. On a smaller scale, these relics were often set in wearable jewels for the faithful. The medieval and Renaissance periods saw personal jewellery called memento mori, which served both as a celebration of loved ones and reminders of the inevitability of death. They incorporated images of skulls, gravestones, and weeping willows. Some had capsules containing the hair of the loved one.
During the Victorian era, jewellery made from hair became very popular. Books were published and classes available to instruct people in the intricacies of weaving hair into complex forms that could be used as bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. While many incorporated delicate gold work, other pieces were representational, depicting flowers, landscapes, or decorative motifs enclosed behind glass. These could incorporate hair from more than one person, a family tree of sorts.