19th century memento mori ring

The skull in depiction is a good way of understanding whether or not a mourning jewel is all it claims to be. As a collector, one has to be careful that there is no room for error when buying a piece, this is often overlooked, as many pieces can interest just due to their beauty and not their fact.

With this particular piece, one must make two assumptions; the skull is rendered contemporary for its time, but not as part of its original construction or that it is a much later addition to deceive or promote financial gain.

This is a difficult spot for the collector. Upon first examination, the ring looks remarkably correct in its style. The skull is an obvious anachronism, for it to be part of mainstream fashion when the ring is estimated to be constructed would make it an anomaly. However, the rest of the ring, with its black enamel shoulders and 1st quarter 19th century rectangular hair memento are seemingly correct.

Hence it comes down to the style of the skull being the only things we can take from it. Skull design in mourning jewels can be identified easily enough through matching detail with mainstream art and contemporary pieces. In this case, the skull is simply rendered, which does conform with earlier skulls, but isn’t definitive.

Highly detailed skulls, that you may see on modern rings would automatically default this piece to be a poor addition, but if this is modern or not can’t be discounted.

Perhaps one should question the taste in adding a skull to the remnants of a loved one, when this is the last element of the person that is left, especially in a time when the memento mori motifs were out of fashion.

Regardless, it is the curiosity in jewellery that makes it fun to discover. Each tells a tale, each resonates with personal history.

Further Reading:
> Spotting Forgeries, Fakes and the History of Reproductions

I’ve written quite a bit about memento mori, it seems to be one of those subjects that is as fascinating as it is polarising. Why is that so? Well, there are so many different connotations involved with the symbolism and that seems to be the crossroads (pardon the veiled pun) of what defines these magical pieces.

If you look to my post from Saturday about the 18th Century Skull on Pendant, then you will see the other end of the scale, which is clearly not a representation of death, but rather the statement of living. However, today we look at the other end of the spectrum with this very rare and very high quality ring from the collection of Marielle Soni is most certainly constructed with the intent of death and mourning. To discern this, firstly let’s look at the time and place of when it was created and why this was so popular.

c.1680-1700 Memento Mori Mourning Ring

This piece was constructed c.1680-1700 and we have many ways to check the validity of this. Firstly, we have the shank itself and note the embellishments. Often, pieces like this have lost their enamel inlay and are quite worn down, but this one is a perfect representation of how it was from when it was constructed. Note the Baroque influence in the design and how this would influence pieces of contemporary and later times. Particularly, the society in which this ring was created was dealing with the new found stability in the government due to the Restoration and from this, industry was finding new ways to create a niche in producing items for a society that was becoming upwardly mobile in ways that had not been seen since the Roman era. Appropriating popular art styles, such as that of the all-pervasive Baroque, and using its influence in products was (and still is) only a logical step in simply selling an item.

c.1680-1700 Memento Mori Mourning Ring

And to follow on from this, we have the skull and crossbones underneath the faceted crystal, an obvious choice for popular symbolism that was now quite heavily associated with death and grief. Gone was the clear establishment of a class that could afford to flaunt its wealth, standard of living and changed were the classes below that could not afford to live in such an almost narcissistic paradigm. Wearing a jewel to show that you will be judged and to live life for all its benefits is quite a grand statement during times with high mortality rates and a more feudal-based system of government, but during the 1670s-80s, there’s a strong shift to higher industry, specialised work and education. Politically, England was recovering from a civil war and the reinstatement of the kingship in Charles II in 1660, the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. There was a high mortality rate and Charles II was only beginning the process of the Restoration. Hence, pieces like this could allow themselves to become more commonplace, the symbols of death could be appropriated for an industry that was reacting to the execution of a king and a subsequent civil war, it could pick up on the nuanced tokens of affection that became popular from this and it could produce a product that was relatively easier to produce and almost the same to sell.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spotlight On: Ribbon Slides

September 30, 2011

Ribbon slides of this nature are early examples of the move towards wide-spread jewellery mementos during the post restoration period. Unlike the previous period, the move from the memento mori ideal provided a space where mourning could become a matter of personal interest. Ecclesiastically, the earlier change towards Protestantism facilitated this and the trauma of the English Civil War during the Stuart Era enforced an evolving custom that differed to that of mainstream Europe.

Considered to be earlier pieces, memento mori jewellery, or the statement of memento mori on objects previous to this time are not true mourning pieces, but a statement on mortality. Prior to the restoration period, portraits of Charles I would be worn secretly, usually hidden in lockets or placed in rings, to show the devotion of royalists to the crown. From this, the mourning custom grew. Mementos could be left to loved ones and the custom of mourning in its growing form became a personal ideal, rather than one central to the church.

Ribbon slides are unusual in they are a piece of popular fashion (for their time) which became absorbed by changing fashion. For their time, they were prolific and it’s quite easy to find original pieces even today, but as fashion changed, prominence fell upon bracelets, rings, necklaces, brooches, pendants and pins quite soon after the start of the 18th century.

Further Reading
> Spooky! Skeletal Rings, Memento Mori and the Evolution of the Symbol
Queen Mary II Memento Mori Slide
> Symbolism Sunday: Revisiting The Trumpet

Mary II Memento Mori Slide

I’ll let the wonderful Michele Rowan talk us through this one;

“A rare Stuart crystal slide to commemorate the death of Queen Mary II, joint sovereign of Britain from 1668 – 1694. Mary, the daughter of James II, was the wife of William of Orange, her first cousin. The marriage had been arranged for diplomatic reasons by Charles II yet produced no heirs. In December 1694 Mary succumbed to smallpox and died at the age of 32, on December 28th. Her husband was prostrate with grief and the nation underwent a period of long and deep mourning for the Queen. Four mournful trumpeters played a slow march leading her elaborate funeral procession to Westminster Abbey. After his death, the King was found to have kept a lock of Mary’s hair and her wedding ring next to his heart.

This commemorative slide for Mary is gold, set with a compartment of woven hair overlaid with devices of the royal crown and sceptre, two orbs and an enamelled skull and crossbones. The central gold cipher letters MR represent Mary Regina and around the edge of the slide in red and gold enamelled letters is the motto : Memento Maria Regina Obit 28 December 1694. The slide is covered with a densely faceted rock crystal. It measures one inch by 3/4 of an inch and is in superb condition, with coloured enamels as bright as they would have been when the slide was made in 1695.”

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Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Continuing our look at memento mori in jewellery through the ages comes this stunning piece from the collection of Marielle Soni. This particular piece jumps ahead of our previous example from c.1680 and we go directly to 1780, in future articles, I will fill out the 1720s-1760s, so you can all see how the memento mori symbols were used in their context.

This brings us back to the primary themes of the these pieces and that is; what is the nature of the symbolism, why is it used, why would it have been commissioned and how would it have been worn?

Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Firstly, let’s look at the facts. The ring is dated 1780 and dedicated to Anne Staneway Obt 8 Mar 1780 AE 20. There is white enamel, domed crystal, the sepia painting and high relief tomb motif with the skull and crossbones on top, painted on the tomb is ‘tempus fugit’ (or ‘time flies) as the winged hourglass . There is the willow, cypress and all this sits underneath a piece of domed crystal. The bezel measures 3/4 inch by 1/2 inch and the band is 1/8 inch wide.

Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Judging from the construction, this piece is in quite original condition. Much of the time, sepia in such fine condition has been doctored with pieces today in order to repair or fetch a higher price, also, the crystal is another telltale sign that there has been some repair work. Often, glass has replaced with bevelled edges, as it’s much harder and more expensive to replicate this. From this piece, right down to the wear of the white enamel, it’s as it was and as it should stay. Visually, to see the richness of the white ivory and the enamel together really make the sepia and high relief gold/hairwork pop out at the viewer. This piece was made at a time of experimentation with the Neoclassical style, so much of these practices were still being understood before they became common in production.

Read the rest of this entry »

Memento Mori Watch

March 29, 2011

Memento Mori WatchWatches and clocks with the memento mori motifs were not uncommon, dating from the mid 17th Century to the 1930s. This early Verge silver skull pivots at the top of the cranium, whereas others pivot from the jaw. There are others created that fold open at the top of the head with enamel and diamonds, but pieces like these are extremely rare and command a high price. Examples exist from Switzerland, France, Germany and England. As written by the Taft Museum:

Memento Mori Watch Closed“The skull and watch are part of the standard subject matter of 17th-century vanitas still lifes. Vanitas is from the Latin for “emptiness” or “untruth,” from which comes the English word “vanity.” Such pictures depict objects that have an underlying moral message—usually about the fleeting nature of physical reality. Therefore, it is not surprising that the skull and watch, two reminders of the passage of time, should merge in a single object. The use of the skeleton hand, however, is unusual.”

Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 Memento Mori Ring

For today’s look at a series of skeletal rings, I’m going to focus on the period of c.1700-c.1740 and take a look at a time when the skeleton was appropriated by an emerging industry…

The exceptional quality and design of this piece is relevant for its place in time. The decorations of the skeleton, hourglass, scythe and shovel were still used in the 1740s, but not to the extent as it had been. This ring is a beautiful example of evolution in its art and the style it emulates from the late 17th Century. Artwork surrounding this piece is much more detailed and not as naive as it had previously been, note the skeleton and the level of the skull’s quality. Its style, having large depictions of the evolved memento mori motifs, is quite unusual, as pieces that would have the motifs tended to be small and set under crystal.

Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 Memento Mori RingDuring the period of around 1700-1760, there was a distinct change in the style of rings, but a clear evolution from what had come before. Shanks and bands became more delicate, some imitating scroll work in gold around the edge with enamelling over the top and an inscription over that.

To indicate pieces from this time, the shank or band are often a good points of reference due to their variation. The popularity of the Rococo style has a lot to do with this, the greater the delicacy and intricate form, the later into its period it becomes.

Country: England
Year: c. 1745
Dedication: Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 at 83

Evolution of the (Skeleton) Symbol

Skeletal Memento Mori Band / 18th Century

“A rare early 18th century Memento Mori band gold known as a skeletal, as the whole length of the skeleton is employed on the outside of the hoop, with other emblems. The earliest known example is dated 1659. This ring is enamelled in black with a full skeleton, twin hearts for love and an hourglass, symbolic of the passage of time and the brevity of life. It is size J [US 4 and 5/8] and the band is 1/8 of an inch wide. A rare ring which has survived in amazingly good condition with enamel intact.”

Skeletal Memento Mori Band / 18th Century

Balancing our look at the Savage ring above is this equally magnificent memento mori ring with very closely related symbolism. Memento mori symbols are quite highly coveted by collectors as the symbolism of the skeleton still resonates today for mortality, as it always has, hence these pieces are very obvious in their intent.

Skeletal Memento Mori Band / 18th Century

Let’s look at the differences in the style. What we can gather about each is that there was a clear evolution in the standard of the painting of the symbolism from this particular piece, which is earlier and the Savage ring, which is later. Note the skull first. We have dimension added to the Savage ring, with the head turned to an angle, showing the full perspective of the skull and the jaw. Also, the jaw is stylistically drawn. The elongated rib cage on the Savage ring cascades across the roll of the band, which this particular ring doesn’t have, with the Savage ring adding another three ribs to the anatomy in order to stretch it out. Note also how the average band bows in at the legs and simply works well with its form factor. There’s much to appreciate about the artistry, as well as the basic premise of the stunning symbolism itself. The tempus fugit symbol is generally similar, though just altered around the shading.

Skeletal Memento Mori Band / 18th Century

Coffin Ring

1715 w/ curved band

Essentially, the main change comes down to the band of the piece. the full rounded style of the Savage ring is quite unusual for its time, where many flat bands were the norm, simply using the Rococo ribbon/twist flourishes and often the interior of the band was slightly rounded. Earlier straight bands of the c.1700 period, such as the example from 1715, show a leaner roll to the band itself, without such a high domed edge.

1740 / Rococo

1740 / Rococo

So, we have a ring that is highly stylised and defies convention for its time and another which exemplifies it. Both convey the same sentiment of mortality, but both show how the artistic style evolved from more primitive and simplistic styles, more typical with the 17th century, into the more typical miniaturisation of art into jewellery by the 18th century.

Skeleton in Degrees of Quality

Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 Memento Mori RingThen there is this piece dating from 1714, which shows the clear continuity between c.1710 and c.1740. The Savage ring actually refines much of the stylisation that this ring. Note firstly the same as above, the shape/angle of the skull, the balance of the rib cage, the curve to the band and the comparable symbolism. Indeed, the style is so similar, they could be considered contemporary, and practically are, however, compare all three skeletons and note the advancing detail to the skull and memento mori symbols through the ages of such a short period of time.

The savage ring, while still retaining better condition of enamel work, has the higher rounded edge to the band and much finer attention to detail in art, sharing more similarities with its period and also showing just how a small amount of time advanced a rather unique style.

This doesn’t discredit the amount of production and fluctuating level of quality, both of which affect the outcomes of a piece of jewellery. The early 18th century was a time of increasing social mobility and higher industry/manufacture, hence the more prolific items were in demand and the industry was there to satisfy those demands, so there was a much greater degree of varied quality. To that end, the first half of the 18th century still used the memento mori motifs in popular format for mainstream jewellery and the industry had appropriated those motifs for death to a higher degree than the previous century. For example, look at the rise of the industry and how that affected and incorporated hairwork. Pieces made to order became more and more popular in the first half of the 18th century, with lockets (especially in the popular heart motif) containing hair becoming increasingly common. As larger jewellery with glass replaced faceted crystal, simple weaves of hair could be placed underneath, without it being a speciality craft or as expensive. By the 1760s, hair was reintroduced in mass produced memorial medallions and lockets (in England and on the Continent), as it was mixed in with sepia and painted on to ivory.

1694 Ribbon Slide

1694

So, we’ve established that the industry had grow and there were varying degrees of quality, but what was more typical? This consideration is what makes these skeletal bands so special. Ribbon slides, and crystal-set pieces of jewellery with the memento mori motifs placed underneath (either painted metal placed on top of woven hair or material) was far more typical. Simple bands with skulls engraved into the top and set with black enamel were also quite prolific and grew more from the legacy of a posy ring, rather than the higher quality crystal pieces, but rings with the full symbolism were not as popular as these. Much of the evolution dating from c.1700 came from the revolving cut and shape of the crystal settings of the jewellery, from the rounded shapes to the more angular settings and higher facets in the cuts.

1740

From what we’re left with today are a series of pieces from the 1650s to the 1740s (and quite possibly more varied examples exist) that convey a bold statement on mortality, are beautiful to behold and are as intrinsically important and vital today as they were when created. There is a microcosm of detail in the evolution of such small piece of art that one has to consider when looking at any piece and even the smallest amount of time can enact the greatest amount of change.

Memento Mori Posts for the Ghouls

How Society Entered Mourning: c.1680-1700 Memento Mori Mourning Ring

Defining Memento Mori Though Presentation: 18th Century Skull on Pendant

17th Century Crystal Memento Mori Ring: A Study

Memento Mori Rosary

Spotlight On: Memento Mori Watch

Courtesy: British Museum

Because I can, here’s a sneak peek at my newest addition to the family and something you’ll be seeing a large article about in the near future!

“A rare early 18th century Memento Mori band gold known as a skeletal, as the whole length of the skeleton is employed on the outside of the hoop, with other emblems. The earliest known example is dated 1659. This ring is enamelled in black with a full skeleton, twin hearts for love and an hourglass, symbolic of the passage of time and the brevity of life. It is size J [US 4 and 5/8] and the band is 1/8 of an inch wide. A rare ring which has survived in amazingly good condition with enamel intact.”

Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Continuing our look at memento mori in jewellery through the ages comes this stunning piece from the collection of Marielle Soni. This particular piece jumps ahead of our previous example from c.1680 and we go directly to 1780, in future articles, I will fill out the 1720s-1760s, so you can all see how the memento mori symbols were used in their context.

This brings us back to the primary themes of the these pieces and that is; what is the nature of the symbolism, why is it used, why would it have been commissioned and how would it have been worn?

Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Firstly, let’s look at the facts. The ring is dated 1780 and dedicated to Anne Staneway Obt 8 Mar 1780 AE 20. There is white enamel, domed crystal, the sepia painting and high relief tomb motif with the skull and crossbones on top, painted on the tomb is ‘tempus fugit’ (or ‘time flies) as the winged hourglass . There is the willow, cypress and all this sits underneath a piece of domed crystal. The bezel measures 3/4 inch by 1/2 inch and the band is 1/8 inch wide.

Anachronistic 1780 Memento Mori Neoclassical Ring

Judging from the construction, this piece is in quite original condition. Much of the time, sepia in such fine condition has been doctored with pieces today in order to repair or fetch a higher price, also, the crystal is another telltale sign that there has been some repair work. Often, glass has replaced with bevelled edges, as it’s much harder and more expensive to replicate this. From this piece, right down to the wear of the white enamel, it’s as it was and as it should stay. Visually, to see the richness of the white ivory and the enamel together really make the sepia and high relief gold/hairwork pop out at the viewer. This piece was made at a time of experimentation with the Neoclassical style, so much of these practices were still being understood before they became common in production.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve written quite a bit about memento mori, it seems to be one of those subjects that is as fascinating as it is polarising. Why is that so? Well, there are so many different connotations involved with the symbolism and that seems to be the crossroads (pardon the veiled pun) of what defines these magical pieces.

If you look to my post from Saturday about the 18th Century Skull on Pendant, then you will see the other end of the scale, which is clearly not a representation of death, but rather the statement of living. However, today we look at the other end of the spectrum with this very rare and very high quality ring from the collection of Marielle Soni is most certainly constructed with the intent of death and mourning. To discern this, firstly let’s look at the time and place of when it was created and why this was so popular.

c.1680-1700 Memento Mori Mourning Ring

This piece was constructed c.1680-1700 and we have many ways to check the validity of this. Firstly, we have the shank itself and note the embellishments. Often, pieces like this have lost their enamel inlay and are quite worn down, but this one is a perfect representation of how it was from when it was constructed. Note the Baroque influence in the design and how this would influence pieces of contemporary and later times. Particularly, the society in which this ring was created was dealing with the new found stability in the government due to the Restoration and from this, industry was finding new ways to create a niche in producing items for a society that was becoming upwardly mobile in ways that had not been seen since the Roman era. Appropriating popular art styles, such as that of the all-pervasive Baroque, and using its influence in products was (and still is) only a logical step in simply selling an item.

c.1680-1700 Memento Mori Mourning Ring

And to follow on from this, we have the skull and crossbones underneath the faceted crystal, an obvious choice for popular symbolism that was now quite heavily associated with death and grief. Gone was the clear establishment of a class that could afford to flaunt its wealth, standard of living and changed were the classes below that could not afford to live in such an almost narcissistic paradigm. Wearing a jewel to show that you will be judged and to live life for all its benefits is quite a grand statement during times with high mortality rates and a more feudal-based system of government, but during the 1670s-80s, there’s a strong shift to higher industry, specialised work and education. Politically, England was recovering from a civil war and the reinstatement of the kingship in Charles II in 1660, the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. There was a high mortality rate and Charles II was only beginning the process of the Restoration. Hence, pieces like this could allow themselves to become more commonplace, the symbols of death could be appropriated for an industry that was reacting to the execution of a king and a subsequent civil war, it could pick up on the nuanced tokens of affection that became popular from this and it could produce a product that was relatively easier to produce and almost the same to sell.

Read the rest of this entry »

Memento Mori Pendant Fob Silver Painted Skull EnamelOne of the greatest misconceptions and one of the reasons why the term ‘faux’ is applied to a piece of jewellery happens when there’s not a great understanding of a piece or the reason for its creation.

If the piece was made to deceive the person buying it by being constructed as a forgery or replica, then there is ample reason for it to be justified as a fake. However, many times, it’s a lack of the simple education surrounding the knowledge of a piece that can change the perspective of a dealer or collector and reappropriate the piece to be more realistic to its intent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stuart Crystal 17th Century Ring Memento Mori

Rings of the late 17th century are the predecessors to many of the ring styles that followed through to the 19th century. They are also becoming harder and harder to find, as many were worn for their intent (as opposed to being hidden away as keepsakes) and they’ve survived many modern recessions that saw some beautiful pieces get broken down and melted for their gold.

So, when a piece like this appears, it’s worthwhile to take note. This particular piece is a testament popular art and sentimental symbolism of the late 18th century and shows many of the conventions that bred the mourning industry.

Firstly, we have the memento mori symbolism, which is often what many collectors gravitate towards. This particular piece is unusual, as the two cherubs are flanking/carrying the skull and crossbones that forms the central part of the motif under the crystal. Underneath this is the hairwork memento, of course. I should point out that the common title for crystal of this period is ‘Stuart Crystal’, due to the reign of the Stuarts, however, I often tend to refer to the material as simply ‘crystal’, due to latter pieces not under the reign with crystal being produced. The crystal is often faceted, with later examples often being domed or curved and the shape is essential to dating pieces. Look for more rounded bezels to be earlier (c.1680) examples and octagonal/harder edged examples to be closer to c.1700.

Stuart Crystal 17th Century Ring Memento Mori

Next to the cherubs is the gold wire cipher initials on top of the hair, which is also common of the time, often for sentimental or fashion, rather than just for mourning. The hairwork underneath was quite often material, rather than hair, but examples vary.

Stuart Crystal 17th Century Ring Memento Mori

The setting of the ring is pronounced on the finger, showing enamel under the bezel, another common feature, that in this piece shows much of the wear. As for the shank, there is loss to the enamel acanthus motif/design that runs down the sides of the band, but this is often the first area where much of the loss can occur with these pieces.

Certainly, what little of these rings exist in the world should be coveted and protected. They hold a style which existed and remained adapted though c.1660-c.1740 and were used across much of the mainstream jewellery design of the period.

Courtesy: Barbara Robbins

Another Sunday is upon us and you’re obviously in a rush, so I won’t keep you long. As a matter of fact, I’m going to be downright kind to you with this easy one.

The hourglass. If you don’t know what an hourglass represents, then you may not know what one actually is. I mean, really, even chefs use these when cooking eggs. Oh well. If you know what it is, then you know what it does (here’s a hint; it measures time) and when used in the context of someone’s lifespan, you can join the dots.

Yes, the hourglass. Time’s inevitable passing the attribute of death and Father Time, representing the passage of time and the shortness of life. Combine that with a skeleton or a depiction of death holding one and you’ve also got a powerful memento mori statement for living, notifying the wearer of the final judgement and the fragility of life and shortness of time.

Look for the hourglass in 17th and early 18th century pieces, but it’s not uncommon to find in latter 18th century pieces (see the anachronistic motifs in the pictured sepia piece).

There, that wasn’t hard. Until next Sunday!

I could spend days absorbed simply looking at a piece like this and the purpose of this website is for sharing, so enjoy this German rosary (c.1500-1525). The description is as follows:

Each bead of the rosary represents the bust of a well-fed burgher or maiden on one side, and a skeleton on the other. The terminals, even more graphically, show the head of a deceased man, with half the image eaten away from decay. Such images served as reminders that life is fleeting and that leading a virtuous life as a faithful Christian is key to salvation.

>> Link: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are many tell-tale signs of a forgery. By “forgery”, I mean a piece that was constructed in order to dupe the collector into buying what they perceive to be an authentic piece. However, by gaining knowledge (through this website and other sources) about styles, art and fashion that are relevant to mourning and sentimental history, the collector will soon be able to analyse and judge a wide variety of pieces.

While a general knowledge of different styles and periods is necessary before analysing pieces, the construction of jewellery is the area where a true forgery may be spotted, or at least its provenance called into doubt.

Late 17th Century Memento Mori RingFirstly, let’s look at the terminology that may be used. Memento mori is one of the most commonly used terms that can make a seller quite a lot of money very fast. These early styles of mourning jewellery command a hefty premium due to their symbolism. Why is this? The ever increasing popularity of the skull and crossbones, the skeleton, cherubs, scythe, all these timeless representations of death and memorials will always be marketable and it doesn’t take much to convince someone to buy them. Simply putting the terms memento mori and mourning in the same sentence will pique the curiosity of even the non-collector.

Let’s look at the history of it. Memento mori did not start off as strictly mourning, it was a statement of living and final judgement. There was a philosophy behind it, but as the mourning industry took flight and greater social mobility allowed mourning paraphernalia, the marriage of these funeralia symbols and fashion was only inevitable.

So on the whole of it, we have two different kinds of memento mori jewellery moving from the 1400s to the 1600s, earlier pieces (are they the prototype or a different thing altogether?) may be considered what is pure. But then again, that would invalidate what is popularly considered memento mori jewellery during the 17th and 18th centuries!Early 19th Century Memento Mori Skull Ring

The skull and crossbones motif continued even when it was out of popular fashion in jewellery and is considered an anachronism. Pieces from 1760 onward (after the advent of the neoclassical movement) are still prevalent, as this was and is considered a standard funerary motif.

Then there are the various memento mori revivals, which try to re-spark the philosophy of the earlier period. Revivals and reproductions of 16th and 17th jewellery were also quite popular across Europe in the 19th century and it’s quite easy to be fooled by some pieces. Combine this with the various fraternal and ‘secret’ organisations of the period that used the skull as a motif and you’ve got a great deal of items that can cause a lot of head-scratching and critique.

Memento Mori 19th Century Revival Walking StickBut, are these pieces all considered fake? It’s the terminology of the modern seller than can cause that kind of reaction. Lack of knowledge by a seller can turn a very respectable 19th century piece into something that may irritate the collector. The genuine forgery is the one that tries to copy a piece or mimic a style exactly under the pretence of subterfuge and deceit.

So, when you’re looking at a piece, be sure to critique it for its merits and when it doubt, question everything!

Early Memento Mori

May 16, 2010

In many ways, memento mori needs to be demystified and a good reminder of this is the below quote from Becker:

“Late sixteenth and seventeenth century rings often had an enamelled skull on a flat bezel, or on one seventeenth or early eighteenth century German example, a full-shaped, enamelled and jewelled skull bezel which swivelled to show a plump lady’s face, rather fleshy and full of life on the other side. A very stark and chastening reminder to any vain eighteenth century beauty!

The theme of passing time also played an important part in Memento Mori ornament, introducing such symbols as the scythe and hour-glass to recall the fact that time could run out at any moment. Some sixteenth century watches were made as Memento Mori pendants to emphasise the importance of time, and were shaped as skulls. In his engravings published in 1559 Pierre Woeiriot included a pendant incorporating a skull in the pattern. Other pendants were designed as miniature enamelled coffins, opening to reveal a detailed corpse or skeleton inside.”

I’ve been watching eBay lately and people have been selling faux memento mori pieces under the very powerful implication of their being real. These pieces are so obviously modern that it goes beyond saying, however, many of these pieces have been fetching several thousands of dollars. It’s quite disparaging to the collector and historian, but please take note that as Becker quite rightly points out, many of these pieces were worn not for a morbidity or for memorialisation, but for a statement of living, so many of the affectations that the non-historian may buy these for (surrounding simply ‘death’) is quite incorrect.

Yet this doesn’t take away from the number of troublesome forgeries being sold as a high rate, with crude memento mori motifs (mostly skulls, they sell higher) populating the planet.

If my writing has done anything but irritate, I hope it leaves you with the knowledge enough to question everything. Scrutinise what you see before you and trust no one that wants to make money from you.

Memento Mori WatchWatches and clocks with the memento mori motifs were not uncommon, dating from the mid 17th Century to the 1930s. This early Verge silver skull pivots at the top of the cranium, whereas others pivot from the jaw. There are others created that fold open at the top of the head with enamel and diamonds, but pieces like these are extremely rare and command a high price. Examples exist from Switzerland, France, Germany and England. As written by the Taft Museum:

Memento Mori Watch Closed“The skull and watch are part of the standard subject matter of 17th-century vanitas still lifes. Vanitas is from the Latin for “emptiness” or “untruth,” from which comes the English word “vanity.” Such pictures depict objects that have an underlying moral message—usually about the fleeting nature of physical reality. Therefore, it is not surprising that the skull and watch, two reminders of the passage of time, should merge in a single object. The use of the skeleton hand, however, is unusual.”

Sir William Ellis (1609-1680) Mourning RingThis ring is dated 80 (1680), and it is a memorial ring for Sir William Ellis (1609-1680) who was a prominent lawyer under Oliver Cromwell.

In 1654 he was appointed solicitor-general. As solicitor-general, he took part in the prosecution of Gerhard, Vowell, and Somerset Fox on the charge of corresponding with Charles Stuart and conspiring to assassinate the Protector (Cromwell).

Sir William Ellis (1609-1680) Mourning Ring BackThe style of the design in this piece matches the usual memento mori style of being a band decorated with the memento mori motifs in enamel around the outside. The Band was popular at this time, complementing the popular crystals of the time. Often, a blend of the two were created and will be shown in later posts.

Country: England
Year: 1680
Dedication: “Sr W E ob 2nd of Dec 80. ‘W’ hallmark

Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 Memento Mori RingThe exceptional quality and design of this piece is relevant for its place in time. The decorations of the skeleton, hourglass, scythe and shovel were still used in the 1740s, but not to the extent as it had been. This ring is a beautiful example of evolution in its art and the style it emulates from the late 17th Century. Compare it to the style of the piece above from 1680 and the similarities are quite deep. Artwork surrounding this piece is much more detailed and not as naive as it had previously been, note the skeleton and the level of the skull’s quality. Its style, having large depictions of the evolved memento mori motifs, is quite unusual, as pieces that would have the motifs tended to be small and set under crystal.

Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 Memento Mori RingDuring the period of around 1700-1760, there was a distinct change in the style of rings, but a clear evolution from what had come before. Shanks became more delicate, some imitating scroll work in gold around the edge with enamelling over the top and an inscription over that.

To indicate pieces from this time, the shank is often a good point of reference due to their variation. The popularity of the Rococo style has a lot to do with this, the greater the delicacy and intricate form of the shank, the later into its period it becomes.

Country: England
Year: c. 1745
Dedication: Ellen Savage ob 16 Oct 1745 at 83

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