Monday, January 14, 2013


Mourning Jewelry Curator Sarah Nehama on Death and Keepsakes

Jeweler Sarah Nehama co-curated the mourning jewelry exhibition that's currently on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society, with the MHS's Anne Bentley (it's free, go!), and put together the accompanying book, In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry (it's $35 and filled with beautiful photographs of old jewelry, and old paintings, and old documents, and ... deep breaths, deep breaths). I emailed Sarah to ask if she'd be up for answering some questions about it, which she was kind enough to do.

Sarah! The show looks great. Do you wear any mourning jewelry regularly?

I often wear items from my collection. Some only rarely if they’re delicate (ivory, enamel), some never if they’re fragile. I’m pretty careful with my jewelry though — all of it, not just the mourning pieces. But with the mourning items I feel I have to be especially careful. For example, I have to remember to take a ring off when I wash my hands if it has hair in it — if any water seeps in under the bezel, the hair could get moldy. Also, it’s a piece of history of someone’s life and their connection to loved ones. Not that other jewelry can’t be — a wedding ring would be the same. But there’s something about humans wanting to be remembered, which is also part of why mourning jewelry exists, I believe, and so I have perhaps more respect for mourning items than other antique jewelry.

What are your thoughts about mourning jewelry vs. memento moris? A memento mori seems easier for wearing purposes, because it's not specific to a particular person's death, and I wonder how it would feel to wear mourning jewelry without knowing the deceased, since it's so personal. Or maybe spreading love and loss outward — everything/nothing is personal — is inherently human and important.

Yes, exactly — memento mori jewelry serves only to remind us, and particularly the wearer, of one’s own mortality. Mourning jewelry commemorates a particular individual (or sometimes several, as when two members of a family passed away in close succession). I’ve often wondered about this same question, and I know that some people say they can feel the energy of the person whose remains are contained in the mourning piece. I know certain pieces I own resonate with me more than others — why, I’m not sure. Also, if I’ve found out something undesirable about the person for whom it is in memory of, then I normally don’t want to wear it. I have a ring with the hair of a man who died in 1788 who owned large cotton plantations and many slaves. I even have a copy of his will bequeathing “32 Negroes” to his son and daughter. Since that doesn’t sit well with me, I don’t wear the ring. But it’s a part of history, so I think it’s important to be preserved.

Would you let someone take a bit of your hair and incorporate it into a piece of mourning jewelry, or are there other commemorative options you'd prefer?

Yes, I’d have no problem if someone wanted some of my hair for a piece of mourning jewelry — at least after I’m gone! I think it’s a lovely way to memorialize someone and to keep them close. I have given locks of my hair as tokens of love and friendship before — one was just a loose lock, the other was incorporated into the back of a ring under glass.

What have the crowds been like at the Massachusetts Historical Society exhibition? I'm taking a trip to Boston to see it later this week, and I'm curious who else will be there. Hopefully no one at all, so I can steal everything. Just kidding!! In some ways...

Hands off, Edith! I don’t know who will be there, but traffic has been very good — the show has been really popular. We’ve had visitors from all over the world, including art school groups, museum groups, collector’s clubs, etc. We were written up in the New York Times when we opened, in Antiques and Fine Art Magazine in the local Metro paper, and I just recently did a live interview with Marian Pierre-Louis for her internet radio show, Fieldstone Common.

I think the book sales have been quite good as well. There’s been lots of interest out there, and curiosity about what mourning jewelry is, and how it played a role in society in the past.

Do you have a favorite gemstone?

I don’t, simply because there are always new things being discovered or old, mined-out rough material taken out of a lapidary’s hoard and cut for use in jewelry. At different times I gravitate towards different things, or different colors in gemstones. One year, pinks and oranges were what I wanted to use most — another time it was greens.

I use many, many different kinds of stones and fossils in my work, from amber with insects, tiny agate geodes, gems with all sorts of mineral inclusions, cabochon cuts, and faceted gems. I’ve use things from fossilized coral and dinosaur bone, to macle-twin diamonds, which are rough natural diamonds, triangular in shape, flat on both sides, made up of twinned crystals. The gemstones are what inspire me, and I generally create the metalwork with the stone or stones as the focus. But I can say I particularly love opals, especially the Australian boulder opals for their infinite variety of patterns and colors, as well as quartzes with unusual inclusions such as water bubbles (yes, really!), rutile and tourmaline inclusions, pyrite crystals, and manganese in dendritic forms that look like plants preserved in glass. See my website! I have a whole section on gemstones from my collection that are available for custom work: sarafinjewelry.com.

Are there any bizarre jewelry facts or stories you particularly like?

Hmmm … well, I don’t think what I’m about to relate is bizarre, because I think the world works in mysterious ways and there’s more there than meets the eye — that’s the beauty of it. However, it makes a good story. In short, I purchased a lovely mourning pendant from a dealer in England. One side contains a salt-print photograph of a young girl, the other side has two colors of hair woven together under glass. Around the side, in the gold casing, her name — Clara Elizabeth Wilkinson — her birth date, and her death date, are engraved. I researched her, and found she was 16 when she died of tuberculosis. There was a fair amount of information online about her father — he being a mathematician, the first headmaster of Marlborough College, and a vicar. Well, I was wearing the pendant one day on a visit to a friend, whose office in Boston overlooks one of the three oldest burial grounds in the city — the Old Granary Burial Ground. I remember this distinctly, because my friend was very curious about this piece, and I took it off to show her. At one point I was looking out her window onto the cemetery. The most prominent marker of all the illustrious people buried there is an obelisk with the name Franklin on it. This marks the grave of the parents of Benjamin Franklin, Abiah and Josiah Franklin.

Later that night, at home, I continued my research on Clara Wilkinson, and found a genealogy site with her parents’ listed, as well as her siblings. Her father’s line went as far as his parents, but her mother’s line went all the way back through the female relatives to … Abiah Franklin! Benjamin Franklin had a sister named Sarah Franklin, who was Clara’s great-great grandmother. To think I’d brought Clara back to the home of her ancestors, and was standing overlooking her great-great-great grandmother and grandfather’s grave while wearing her picture and hair (with its genetic material), was pretty amazing. What are the chances of that? And later, I was contacted via email by a gentleman in Ireland whose great grandfather was Clara’s brother — he’d seen the locket on a mourning jewelry website, and being an avid genealogist for his family, was curious as to who I was and how I came across it. He actually filled in more info for me about Clara’s family and sent me a photo of a painting of Clara’s father, Matthew Wilkinson, when he was headmaster. It’s things like this that I love — and I bought the piece simply because Clara’s image captivated me. I believe it was taken not much more than a year before she died — and I learned from her death certificate that she’d been diagnosed two years before her death. You can kind of tell she’s not well — she’s very thin and pale. But she has a little smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, and I just think she’s wonderful. Too bad she died so young.

(That is incredible!) If you had to make a piece of mourning jewelry, what would it be? I know it probably depends on the person, but are there certain materials you'd use, etc.?

That’s a great question. I’ve often thought about it. It would depend on the person who commissioned it, what they wanted, if I were making something for someone else. But if I were to make one for myself in honor of someone close to me who died, I’d want it both to reference the antique pieces I especially love, which are the Georgian-era sepia miniatures, and the Regency/Empire/Federal pieces with clean lines, enamel and hairwork encased under glass. But I’d also want the piece to be like my own work, not just a copy of an older style. I might then use 22K gold, which I love, and do a modern form of granulation (using small gold granules to create a pattern or border on a plain gold surface), or incorporate unusual stones into the piece. I don’t do enameling myself, so if I wanted that — and I love it, I’d need to find someone skilled enough to do what I wanted. Same with engraving and chasing work, neither of which I do. And, instead of a sepia miniature using ink and chopped hair on ivory, perhaps I’d use a mother-of-pearl base with a photo transfer. What I’d hope to create is a truly sentimental piece unique to my style, but which also looked to the older tradition of mourning jewels.

I'd love to see the tradition of mourning jewelry come back — it's similar to but more lasting than, say, commemorative tattoos. Not to knock tattoos, but it's not like you can cut someone's tattoo off them and wear it after they die. Or, if it is, it's not yet a popular thing to do. Or: mourning jewelry with not pieces of hair but scraps of the person's tattoo? Hm...

Am I getting too dark?

Maybe for some folks, yes … I think that’s subjective! Doesn’t skin degrade, though? Wouldn’t you have to preserve it in formaldehyde or something? Hair doesn’t degrade, which is the beauty of using it in memorial jewelry. Still, one has to be careful not to let water get under crystals housing hair relics — it can get moldy and that’s no good. I have seen mourning pieces with teeth, but not very often. I actually have a tiny silver ring with one of my mom’s baby teeth — it isn’t a mourning piece, but a sentimental souvenir her father had made when she lost her first tooth. Some people think it odd, but I like it (and wear it sometimes!).

There's this lecture series in Brooklyn on mourning jewelry later this month, and in February, which looks interesting. What do you think?

I’m familiar with The Observatory in Brooklyn — I’m on their email list, but sadly I’ve not gone to any lectures/events there. They always have such interesting things going on — makes me wish I lived in New York. Yes, that looks like a fascinating series of lectures! I’ll be sure to share that link with other enthusiasts.

Where are the best places (or, your favorite places) to find mourning jewelry, or other kinds of antique jewelry?

I look at lots of mourning jewelry online, from eBay auctions to auction house sales all over the world. I certainly don’t bid on most, but I like to watch the market and see what’s out there. I also go to antique shows and there are certain dealers I know who have wonderful things and who I trust both from an integrity point of view, and because they are also knowledgeable about what they carry. What I really would really like to do is go to other countries and see what they have — England primarily, where there’s a wealth of mourning jewelry, but where the nicer and more unique pieces tend to be quite pricey, at least for an American. In terms of looking at lots of examples of mourning jewelry, there’s an invaluable educational website: Art of Mourning, which also has a Facebook page.

It’s a great resource where people share pictures, articles, auction info, anything really related to mourning jewelry and art. The owner of the site, Hayden Peters, is an incredibly knowledgeable jewelry historian and collector himself, and has been a very important part of my mourning jewelry education since I started collecting eight years ago.

For how long did you work on the book? (I ordered a copy; it's great.)

I worked on the book for six months — the actual writing of it. But I’d sort of “worked” on it for a year or so before — reading a lot regarding mourning jewelry, looking at pieces online, in shops, at antique shows, and in museums, and asking questions of others in the field. And from the beginning, every time I’ve purchased or been given a piece of mourning or sentimental jewelry, I’ve photographed it and documented it, and with some pieces, researched the person it was commemorating, so I already had quite a bit of material on my own pieces. I had also got my start at MHS by cataloging their mourning jewelry collection as a volunteer — I photographed the pieces (though those were not the photos used in the book — those were taken by Laura Wulf of the Digital Projects Dept. at MHS), and I cataloged the basic information like materials, date, maker if known, etc.

I'm trying to find a cut-out section in the book that lets you make/fold/roll your own paper-based piece of mourning jewelry. Should I stop looking?

I’m afraid so, Edith, although that would have been a fun idea — that and pop-up mourning jewels. Maybe that’ll have to be my next book!


Sarah Nehama is a jeweler in Boston. Her book is available on Amazon and via Goodreads, and the mourning jewelry show at the Massachusetts Historical Society closes January 31.

Top photo by Laura Wulf, from In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry; all other photos courtesy Sarah Nehama.

37 Comments / Post A Comment

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

When visiting Houston last year, my hosts took me to the National Museum of Funeral History as sort of a prank, but we ended up going through the whole thing and it was actually pretty fascinating. I remember thinking the memento mori section was simultaneously heartbreaking (the photos! the love! the loss!) and gross, because of the hair.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose THAT PLACE. (I used to live in Houston.) The memento mori section is my favorite, but that whole museum is just so bizarre and arbitrary (did they already have the completely random and in-depth dead Pope exhibit up when you went?).

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@TheBelleWitch Yes, the popes and the presidents! When I first walked in, I was a little drunk from my in-flight cocktails (yes, they took me directly to the museum from the airport), and walking around through the generations of hearses was really mind-blowing. But then getting to the double-occupancy coffins? Oof.


Swwwwweeeeeet : )@j

Judith Slutler

This is so amazing. I kind of love the woven hair jewelry.

There's a contemporary artist who makes jewelry with entire scenes made out of a few strangs of hair! http://www.melaniebilenker.com/ I bet she'd make some amazing mourning jewelry.

The Lady of Shalott

THIS IS SUPERBALLS AMAZINF. I presentes a paper at a conference on mourning jewellery and art and its connections to funerary traditions in Victorian North America so this is def in my wheelhouse.

Have you visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and seen their collections? I would love to go one day.


Thanks for sharing this! I know what my plans are next weekend...!


@SarahP Boston Pinup, Morbid Jewelry Edition?

Daisy Razor

@anachronistique Seconded! Baby Razor would probably tag along too.


@Daisy Razor I can do the 26th-27th, not this upcoming weekend; if you guys will wait that long I would love to do it Pinup style!


@SarahP Sounds perfect! :D

Marquise de Morville

@anachronistique Could I maybe join you guys as well?

Daisy Razor

@anachronistique Oh, I'm out of town that weekend. I may try to go on a weekday & give y'all a little review on the Boston google group.


@Daisy Razor Noooooooooo! I still have yet to see Baby Razor!

We can get two separate groups going, though, in case there are others who'd rather go this weekend than next.


@SarahP If anyone has Monday the 21st off, I'm up for going then.


Are all of you on the google group? I'll send out an email this evening.


@SarahP I didn't forget you all, just had unexpected things to do last night. I'll get to the email soon!


@SarahP belatedly, I am SO IN on this plan


Perfect! Maybe a Sunday sometime? I work saturdays but I would LOVE to do a 'pinner meet up!

Miss Maszkerádi

Wooooo, I had no idea mourning jewelry was a thing but this is fascinating! It reminds me of the whole thing of saints' relics, and inspires in me a similar reaction (equal parts touched and grossed out.) At least this seems to be mostly hair, which is less spooky than, like, bones.

I was in Prague a few weeks ago and took one free afternoon to visit the exhibition at the castle treasury - lots of spectacular gold and jewels and church/ritual artifacts, swords of legendary kings, etc. - amazing stuff. But also oh God so many relics. Particularly those of the traditional patron saint of Bohemia, King St. Václav (Wenceslas), of whom I'm rather fond. And basically my mood as I went through the exhibit, and every now and then there'd be another random piece of his bones, housed in some grand gold reliquary, went from an awed realization that as much as these saints are figures of legend, they too were flesh and blood - to eventually being sad and angry that the poor man, the good king of flesh and blood, couldn't even rest in peace for half a century before they started tearing apart his poor bones...

Then again I'm fascinated by the morbid lately, so all in all it was sort of awesome. I also once saw John the Baptist's arm in a cathedral in Italy and couldn't stop giggling, due to feeling incredibly awkward but unable to stop wondering where his head on a platter ever ended up.


I get skeeved out by hair jewelry not because it's a dead person's hair, but because it's hair, you know? I like the IDEA of mourning jewelry, and I want to see the beauty and intricacy of that woven hair on the pendant, but I just can't get past the "that grew out of someone else's head" thing. I'm not squeamish usually, but for some reason it grosses me out.

Freya West Potempa@twitter

I love mourning jewelry and this interview was fascinating! I've always wanted to visit Leila's Hair Museum in Kansas City to see the bouquets of hairwork and mourning jewelry. http://www.hairwork.com/leila/


Okay, so I'm putting this out there, and judge me, whatever, but does anyone know of anywhere I could get a piece of mourning jewelry made? I have a lock of hair I'd like made into a pendant. I was looking at, like, lockets on Etsy, but I'd like something a bit more permanent.
If I can't ask this here, there is literally nowhere on the internet I can go!


@cherrispryte annnnd now I am concerned everyone thinks I'm a tasteless morbid freak. IGNORE ME!


No, you're not a tasteless morbid freak! I don't know the real answer to your question, but if it didn't matter quite so much that the hair be visible, and you just wanted to have it, maybe you could look into the necklaces that people use to put cremation ashes in?

My sister has her best friend's ashes in a necklace that she wears every day, and it is kind of nice that nobody can tell that that's what it is! If you google 'cremation necklace' you'll find tons of places that sell that sort of thing.


@cherrispryte I have no idea where you could get that done, but I just wanted to chime in to say I don't think that's creepy at all. I think its a great way to keep part of someone you want to remember close to you.


I just scrolled down here to say "Heeeey JP!" to Sarah! I'm going to check out this exhibit. I would have gone much sooner if I'd known about it. Apparently I live under a rock (pun intended).


@yrouttasight If you look above, a couple of us Boston-area 'pinners might check it out together later this month!


My father-in-law passed away last month, and I went with the family for support while interment arrangements were made. If one opts for cremation of a loved one, one can purchase jewellery that houses a small amount of ashes. (Needless to say, that was not an option chosen in this particular case.)

I feel this lacks the tactility and poetry of the antique pieces in this article, but I imagine it would give comfort to someone who wanted to have a piece of their loved one close.


Chiming in to say that I'd ABSOLUTELY wear tooth jewelry. 100%. (Is it more or less creepy if the tooth is a stranger's tooth vs the tooth of a loved one?)

This is a wonderful interview and I'm so glad you did this. I wonder how dyed hair lasts in jewelry like that. My hair is purple and blue right now, so would it be more or less romantic/meaningful/practical to give someone some of my hair right now, or to wait until the color grows out and chop off some of my natural hair (ie dark brown and silver)? Not that I'm giving anybody hair of mine anytime soon, but I wonder.


@frigwiggin I'm not sure I'd wear tooth jewelry, but I've got all of my daughter's and dog's teeth all together in a little box. I always thought I'd just throw out the teeth when the Tooth Fairy came, but somehow I am loath to get rid of them.

irma la douce

This exhibition looks amazing! I used to work at a small 19th century museum, and on my first day the owner pointed out a beautiful, intricate wreath in a glass frame on the wall of the parlor, where every flower was made of tiny dark coils. It turned out to be a mourning wreath (like this! http://www.everhart-museum.org/Collection/Wreath.htm ) which were made from the hair of deceased loved ones. Often hair from an entire family would be represented in one wreath, which served as a tangible way to keep the memories of the dead close and present to the living.
Morbid for sure, but lovely in its own way.


Thanks for sharing this! I know what my plans are next weekend...!Video

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