Precious Metal Weight: Estimated to be approximately 5.80 dwt
Precious Metal Material: Sold to the shop as entirely 14k yellow gold, though our shop equipment tests the central bezel mounting at just over 14k yellow gold and the double Ouroboros serpent frame as about 16k yellow gold
Weight: A very impressive 9.28 grams
Dimensions: Overall, the piece measures 40.45 mm north to south x 34.38 mm east to west x 7.15 mm deep (not including stem pin/clasp mechanism
Detail Type: Macerated hair + pigment miniature landscape memorial painting under hand blown and beveled glass, with plaited hair compartment under hand blown and beveled glass to the reverse
Dimensions: The central bezeled painting portion/hair locket measures 28.83 mm north to south x 23.84 mm east to west (all measured within mount so as to preserve the piece’s integrity)
Markings: No hallmarks or other markings are present on this piece, as is typical for jewels of this age. The brooch tests for a slight range of at least 14k yellow gold to 16k yellow gold. The closure system is a historic replacement performed sometime before 1880, and appears to be of base metal (likely once gilt)
Era: The macerated hair painting and plaited hair reverse is believed to date to between circa 1770-1780, though could be as late as circa 1800. It is very possible that the double Ouroboros serpent frame was a later addition to the central brooch component, as the serpents’ detailing and stylization reflects circa 1850s-1860s aesthetics. As well, the construction techniques and evidenced changes to the jewel over time may indicate that the serpents are not original to the painting portion. Such changes are not unusual within antique jewelry, as heirloomed pieces were amended and updated over time to keep up with evolving fashions. Beyond what our years of education, collecting, dealing and refining our expertise enable us to determine, we cannot ascertain a more precise date range or history than this without knowledge of the piece’s exact provenance.
Buyer Notes: This brooch is an outstanding example of mourning finery, and is absolutely one of the most profound pieces of historic jewelry that we have ever had the privilege of offering. At the time of research and evaluation, there are virtually no other exact or near exact comparables to this piece on the open market. As such, it stands as a proud and wholly singular relic of the late Georgian and early Victorian periods, a heartfelt and wonderfully artistic expression of grief and love and the everlasting bond of loyalty. As is true of all antiques of this age, please note that this brooch shows wear commensurate with its roughly 250 year age and centuries of affectionate use. Due to the possible iterations of changes made to the piece over time (as fully described in the written description), as well as the hollow construction of the serpents, the reverse of the creatures exhibit some imperfections that evidence these changes and make; some of the gold seams are slit and one side shows an area of gold loss, both characteristics revealing the hollow nature of the double Ouroboros. These do not affect the brooch’s wearability or beauty, and are not at all visible when worn. Such are the features of hundreds of years old jewelry, and ought to be considered and noted by prospective buyers. For those interested in further research, please see the special collections and archives of notable museums such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and many, many more.
An astounding work of art to behold, this antique mourning brooch is truly one of a kind and highly collectible. Not only does this piece honor a long departed soul, but it also represents a complex, reverently rigid convention of mourning that was practiced as a social custom for hundreds and hundreds of years before losing favor to less restrictive displays of grief at the dawn of the post World War I era. Believed to date to circa 1770-1780, this brooch survives as a relic of the mourning canons of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, when mourning practices were outwardly observed by decrees pertaining to dress, personal adornment, interior decoration, socialization and more.
Socially correct grieving was divided into stages, beginning with the first stage of Deepest Mourning which gave way to the Second stage and Ordinary stage of mourning, followed by the Third stage and Half-Mourning stage and last, the Final stage of mourning. The dictates of each of these prescribed phases are extensive in number and specific in nature, though their primary characteristics may be understood most essentially in terms of the colors, materials and imagery used to express sentiment in one’s garb and jewelry.
First and Deepest (Full) Mourning (depending on the departed’s relation, lasted from six months, to one year and one day, to at least two years) was characterized by the use of matte finishes across most aspects of one’s perceptible wealth, from fabrics of habiliments to composition of jewelry. Men and women alike eliminated their use of silver and gold jewelry and accessories as well as the display of polished swords and weaponry on the person. Women oftentimes simply did not wear any jewelry at all during this stage. Even surfaces and materials within the home were amended to reflect the solemnity of the occasion: all painted (or later, photographed) portraits and reflective mirrors were flipped to their reverse or veiled so as to inhibit soul-gazed reflection and vain enamoration that would have been inappropriate given the somberness rightly due.
Second and Ordinary Mourning (depending on the departed’s relation, lasted three to six months) was characterized by the allowance of both black and white jewelry to be worn, as well as the introduction of new textures into the griever’s wardrobe, including black feathers and other like garnishes, as well as white linen trimmings, hemlines and fringes, white linen gloves, fichus, tippets and neck scarves. Jewelry was sometimes enameled in such dual tonalities, and semi-lustrous, somewhat glossy materials, including pearls, damasks and subdued guillochés were also acceptable. The use of jet (sometimes in combination with cut steel) was notably permitted (jet is a mineraloid gemstone that is actually a form of lignite (coal), wherein wood has transformed under pressure into a new, carvable and lightweight substance). By adding fresh, albeit limited, ‘colors’ and elements into this second stage signified a healthy progression through the grieving process of a loved one.
Third and Half-Mourning (depending on the departed’s relation, lasted about three months) was characterized by yet another advancement of the addition of diamonds into ladies’ jewelry ensembles, and the reversal back to metallic (silver) buttons, buckles and such accessories by gentlemen. Symbolically moving away from heavy and structured crepes, women’s dresses were made of airy black silks and sumptuous velvets, and would decorate their looks with colored buttons and the use of non-black fans. Weeping veils were not required for grieving widows as they were during the first stage. Lace and embroidery were now acceptable, as was the introduction of dusty pinkish to purple colors in varying hues, tones and temperatures. The use of gemstones in the family of lilac, violet, lavender, mauve and deep buff were appropriate for this transitory stage. Because this period was the briefest, social restrictions were somewhat eased, and the griever’s schedule was amenable to familiar gatherings and the reintegration of the bereaved into society.
Being that this brooch is fabricated in mid to high karat gold, and houses a landscape depiction in color, it may be presumed that this brooch was worn during the Third Mourning and Half-Mourning stages, during which time controlled chromatic schemes were permitted to be reintroduced into the mourner’s wardrobe. A wearable tribute to the deceased, this brooch depicts an idyllic scene composed of elements that strategically honor particular attributes of the departed’s life.
It is painted in the style of 18th century French landscapists, such as Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), many of whom followed in the stylistic leanings of Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682). Lorrain’s work relied upon classical components and mathematical compositions to construct pastoral scenes, wherein details of architectural ruins are designed to augment the humility of the genre scape. The use of light was used to break up the compositions, drawing the eye inward as if experiencing the painted subject’s path. The dimpling of light deliberately places emphasis on the manifestations of time and ephemerality of circumstance. An allusion of the marked persistence and dominance of creation’s sacred ordination is on display as well. One may heed these themes-- and others-- within this brooch:
The impermanence of life is represented by the tombstone in the middle ground that asserts itself as a taciturn accolade to a human life finished. It is capped with a sizable urn, a symbol of authoritative measure, historically used as a decorative way to house the ashes of the departed in holy veneration. Just as the very style of the landscape painting ages the brooch to the Georgian era (no later than 1837), the urn’s presence in the depiction declares the brooch to be of later origin than the Gothic Revivalism of the mid to late 1850s. Through the lens of Romanticism, the urn is a reminder that the honoree’s spirit is resting with God, a truth in which the bereaved may find peace. An illegible inscription is painted upon the face of the stone, alluding to the attribution of its contents.
Closer to the viewer, a female figure may be seen mid-motion as she walks away from the tombstone, a gesture that doubtless reflects her assurance that her loved one is at last at rest. That we see her in motion, appearing as if having just turned around, tells us that her peace is fresh, perhaps even somewhat wavering, as is natural of the grieving process. She stretches her right arm outward, perhaps reaching for a child, a sibling, a friend or someone else that seems to be just outside of the scene’s bounds. The viewer senses her emotion just by her body language, feels her unstable urgency and her efforts to believe and accept her beloved’s sanctified rest.
Most deliberately, a ship is at sail just beyond her in a lake that punctuates the scene in half; the ship’s placement causes the viewer’s eye to draw immediately from the figure’s cresting grief to the ship’s staunch sail. Indeed, it glides atop glassy waters, with no danger or risk in sight. The sails are billowed and the vessel is loyally watched by a church steeple that soars through the tree-covered foothills that hedge the lake. In dynamic harmony, a rugged mountain peak points to the heavens that envelop the moment, from the mystery of heaven’s heights to the unknowns of grief’s depths. Cypress trees frame the setting, zigzagging from foreground to background, recalling the craggy silhouette of the snow-topped mountain that anchors the experience.
All historic jewels, particularly mourning pieces, were designed to tell a complete story that acknowledges the sadness of a life lost, but the fullness of the life reborn in Christ. Every detail exudes meaning: of course, the tombstone represents the departed, the urn a marker of their status with their Maker. The female figure is the departed’s mourner, experiencing the ebbs and flows of the mourning process. The sailing vessel is an expression of the departed’s confident journey after death, their pilgrimage guided by divine direction as symbolized by the steeple. The mountain is an image of God himself, mighty and majestic, defying the ages and proving consistency in the face of life’s unpredictability. Cypress trees stand as specific emblems of eternal life, their gnarled branches able to withstand trying conditions with perseverance and strength. As conduits of eternalism, their outstretched verticality is believed to connect lowly creatures to the sovereignty of God above.
The piece’s color story is earthy and relatively limited, dominated by greens and amber hues that give way to warmer grays and pale blues and creamy whites. Most impressively, the entire image herein is painted using macerated human hair, prepared by finely cut portions that were painstakingly ground with colored pigments and adhesives. Once the palette was made, the scene was painted atop the (likely) ivory, porcelain or bovine surface, its scale a remarkable testament to the original artist’s abilities. To preserve the brooch’s integrity, it was not deconstructed for further surface examination or identification. This work of landscape art is encased in a hand blown, hand beveled glass compartment, the organic nature of the glass adding dimensional interest to the piece when handled and viewed from various angles.
To the piece’s reverse, a glass locket holds a segment of diagonally woven hair that is a timeless tapestry of brunette to blonde locks streaked with silvery white strands. While some later hairwork brooches functioned on swivel, this piece is stationary, causing the woven hair of the departed to press closest to the wearer’s heart when pinned. Both the front painting and back hair locket are bezeled within a shared 14k yellow gold mount. The landscape side’s bezel features a series of four geometricized festoons rounding the oval’s outline at the four cardinal directions, each one decorated with a stylized Meandros pattern. The Meandros, or ‘Greek Key’ betokens life’s progression and digression, renewal and loss, knowns and unknowns. The four festoons are each bookended by horizontal diamond shapes, connoting balance, clarity and wisdom. Their cardinal stations remind the wearer that there is purpose and refinement in every pain and every joy.
Substantiating the jewel’s symbolism is the pair of serpents whose writhing bodies encircle the bezeled frame. Both snakes span one half of the brooch’s orientation, meeting at the north and south positions where we may observe their bites on each other’s tail. The effect is an unbroken cycle of both the pain and the loyalty experienced in meandering toward the grip of the bite-- a bite which ensures devotion without end. For thousands of years, the Ouroboros (snake eating its tail) has been a symbol of infinity, of rebirth and new life. It is not a dark or foreboding image at all, but one whose curious piquancy promises the cycle of life. Typically, the Ouroboros shows a snake whose body is smoothed into a circular or oval shape. Yet this brooch features a pair of snakes, a double Ouroboros, formed by wiggling silhouettes that evoke the Meandros’ ups and downs. Of special note, the snakes are finely engraved with scaled hatching, and their heads are fully articulated with almost dragon-like detailing. These miniscule divots catch the light and emphasize their apparent motion.
The pin’s construction is intriguing as well, as it tells of its history and possible changes over time. The serpents’ stylization are found in pieces that date to the mid Victorian era, circle 1850-1860. When examined from the reverse, we can see that the serpents are hollow formed, and that there appears to have once been a closure system oriented vertically, where a clasp was mounted behind one snake head, and the hinge mechanism behind the other. However, at some point in the piece’s long history, this original closure was removed and replaced with the one we see today, oriented horizontally. It is possible, too, that the double Ouroboros was taken from another jewel entirely and remounted onto the gold-mounted painted hairwork brooch to give it an updated look. The open c-clasp and the tube hinge present are believed to date to around the 1860s or so, so are not themselves recent additions, possibly appended when (if) the Ouroboros was added. The construction ghost-marks on the brooch enable us to presume the brooch’s periodic evolution, even without knowing a precise timeline of change.
Mourning pieces were not just enjoyed during the formal grieving process. As was customary, pieces of this nature were forever kept by their commissioner in dutiful remembrance of the departed. In suit, they were subsequently passed down from generation to generation as devoted family heirlooms and genealogical records of family history. While these customs do not persist today, mourning jewelry exists as a tactile glimpse into a bygone praxis of respect, and to historians, fine artists, collectors and enthusiasts alike, seem to collapse time and connect the jewels’ original wearers with their current caretakers in a spiritual, ceaselessly deferential experience.