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Wedgwood and Jewellery: Mourning Ring for Josiah Wedgwood

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 with opaque enamel.

Rings like these were bequeathed to close friends and loved ones. 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. Often the deceased’s will included a specified description of the ring’s design with a list of people who would receive them.

The 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 bequeathing a ring for remembrance was known from the Middle Ages and was still prevalent in the late 18th 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 from that time on she 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 had 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.

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, and cousins would be mourned for at least one month. There was no distinction in treatment between blood relatives or connections by marriage. One was also expected to mourn as a courtesy gesture of sympathy, especially on a 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.