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:

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.