A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Exhibition: September 2012 to January 2013

In Death Lamented features rings, bracelets, brooches, and other pieces of mourning jewelry from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Ranging from early gold bands with death’s head iconography to jeweled brooches and intricately woven hairwork pieces of the Civil War era, these elegant and evocative objects are presented in the context of their history, use, and meaning, alongside related pieces of material culture.

The exhibit runs from 28 September 2012 through 31 January 2013, Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM.


A companion volume developed to accompany the exhibition of the same title, In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, by Sarah Nehama with a foreword by Anne E. Bentley, features 110 full-color illustrations of exemplary pieces of mourning jewelry. The essays and captions provide valuable historical context for the changing styles of mourning ornamentation and the social customs around grieving.

 Buy it on Amazon

Buy it on Amazon.com

Jewelry Containing Hair

Items made especially for mourning followed the trends shaping jewelry design. Funeral rings were a subset of a larger convention of love and friendship tokens. Locks of hair were traditionally exchanged as a keepsake, sometimes inserted in the back of a miniature portrait or in a piece of jewelry.

The ring and the brooch that Abigail Adams commissioned in 1812, as a gift to honor her and John’s renewed friendship with Mercy Otis Warren, are perfect examples of hair being exchanged as a keepsake. The brooch contains a lock of Mercy's hair (see below), an earlier gift to Abigail. Beneath the crystal on the ring rest a few snippets of John and Abigail’s hair. Both pieces are true relics of the Revolutionary generation.

Memorial jewelry, along with other decorative arts of the period, became particularly ornate in the mid-19th century, when Queen Victoria’s deep mourning for Prince Albert set a rigorous standard for mourning and the Gothic revival took hold. Large gold bands and brooches, intricately chased and studded with jet stones or pearls, became the common currency of mourning, and hair woven into neat patterns or astonishingly detailed designs became ubiquitous.

Mercy Otis Warren brooch
fold, seed pearls, crystal, gold foil, hair, circa 1812

Jackson-Warner brooch and earrings
gold, pearls, melanite, hair, glass, [1830]

Adams/Winthrop seal ring
Gold, carnelian, crystal, hair by Jones, Ball & Poor (Boston, Mass.), 1848

Daniel Webster mourning brooch
Gold, hair, crystal, pearls

Back to top