• Open the museum's jewellery box and find out about the fascinating stories these objects tell.

Wedgwood and jewellery

  • by Rebecca Klarner

Mourning ring for Josiah Wedgwood

Theme

This gold ring is marked Josiah Wedgwood ob: 3 jan 1795 aged 64 and relates to the death of Josiah Wedgwood I. It is decorated with black and white ‘champlevé’ enamel, where designs are hollowed out in the metal ground by means of etching or cutting and then filled up with opaque enamel.

Rings like these were bequeathed to close friends and the loved ones after a person’s death. Even the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys ordered rings to be given away at his funeral. Usually the money for this special kind of jewellery was left in the deceased’s will specifically for this purpose, or the deceased’s heirs were supposed to pay for it. Usually the deceased left a specified description of the design of the ring and a list of people who would receive them was given in the will.

The Museum’s collection also includes a second ring commemorating the death of Josiah as well as one marking the death of his wife, Sarah.

The custom of leaving a ring to be bequeathed for remembrance was known from the Middle Ages and was still prevalent in the late eighteenth century when Josiah I died. The custom became especially fashionable after the death of Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, when mourning jewellery reached its height of popularity in England. Queen Victoria was devastated by the death of her beloved and thenceforth wore black and remembrance jewellery. Members of her court were supposed to follow her example.

By this time a complex set of dressing rules for mourning was developed. According to the conventions of Queen Victoria’s reign a widow was expected to wear black crêpe for one year and one day after her husband’s death. The only other permitted ‘colour’ was white which could be worn as collars or sleeves. This stage was called ‘full mourning’. The only jewellery to be allowed was jet jewellery and mourning rings like these. Jet, otherwise known as ‘black amber’, is a variety of fossilised coal, the best quality is to be found in Whitby, England and by the end of her reign Queen Victoria significantly popularised it.

‘Second mourning’ lasted for a minimum of nine months. The widow was allowed to wear plain and modest jewellery made of gold or gold-plated metals, hair and even cut steel. She was allowed to adorn her still very plain dress with fabric trim and lift her veil to wear it back over her head. This stage was followed by so-called ‘half mourning’ which meant the mourner could  gradually ease back into colour. The colours permitted were grey, purple, lavender, lilac, mauve and white. This stage could take three to six months.

But it was not only a deceased husband that was expected to be mourned the right way. The required mourning time for a child or a parent was eight months to a year, grandparents six to nine months, aunts and uncles up to three months, whilst a cousin would be mourned for a least one month. There was no distinction in treatment between blood relatives or connections by marriage. As well one was expected to mourn complimentarily as a gesture of sympathy, especially on first visit to a bereaved friend’s home.

Mourning, and especially mourning jewellery, can be regarded as typically Victorian. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 the following Edwardian period saw fashion change and etiquette became far less rigid.

Catalogue

This gold ring is decorated with black and white enamel and the legend 'Josiah Wedgwood ob: 3 jan 1795 aged 64' in gold. These kinds of rings were beqeathed to close friends and family after the death of a loved one.