No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Mourning Ring of Jeremy Bentham, Bequeathed to John Stuart Mill in 1832.
© UCL Bentham Project.
Mourning rings are memorial rings used to commemorate a deceased relative, close friend or an historical figure. Early accounts of their use date from the Roman Empire, around the time of the defeat at the battle of Cannae against Hannibal (216 BC). The Carthaginian general ordered the golden rings to be taken from all slain Romans which were then sent to Carthage as evidence of the many Roman noblemen who perished during the battle (only the elite in Roman society were granted the right to wear golden rings during the reign of the Caesars). In remembrance Romans would take off their golden rings and substitute them with ones of iron in days of general mourning. In more recent history, mourning rings were identified from the 15th to the early 20th century with the apogee of their wearing occurring during the 18th century.
During the later years of the medieval period it became customary in some circles of society to remember a departed loved one with a plain - half - hoop ring, engraved or enameled with the initials of the deceased along side the date of departure. In the 17th century hoops with a triangular cross-section were added to this repertoire, as well as rings with a lozenge or hexagonal bezel on which the initials of the deceased were enameled or engraved, accompanied by mottos as "memento mori" or vanitas symbols.
These rings were given at the funeral to close friends and/or family members as specified in the will of the deceased. The will of William Shakespeare, from 1616, mentions that sums of money are bequeathed to several friends to buy them golden rings. The value of those mourning rings would equal to about USD 3,000.00 in current days (26 shillings, 8 pence). This tradition lasted well into the 19th century. Records of the Old Bailey criminal court in London, UK show 190 incidents involving the theft of mourning rings between 1730 and 1908, often resulting in the felons being sentenced to death or transported to the penal colonies. One account mentions the shoplifting of 14 such rings from a London jeweler, showing that jewelers used to stock these rings (only part of the parcel was engraved) and have them engraved on demand. One of the production centers of those goods was in Birmingham, UK.
Judge Samual Sewall:
|“|| Lost a ring
(by not attending the funeral)
|“|| Escaped unluckily from me
A Large Gold Ring, a Little Key;
As with most jewelry we can recognize some trends in mourning rings, following the overall style of the days. Throughout the ages a simple hoop ring remained in fashion. The materials used extended from gold and silver to pinchbeck, copper and bath metal.
Many times the text reads "ob" or "obt", which is an abbreviation for the latin word "obiit", meaning "died". The enamels were usually monotoned black or white; black was used for married persons, while white indicated an unmarried - usually young - person.
In the UK almost all jewelry was exempt from compulsory hallmarking in the period from the early 18th century until 1973, with the exception of mourning (and wedding) rings. It was not until 1878 that the levying of duty on mourning rings was ceased. The reasons for the exception are not clear, but they may have to do with the fact that these rings were usually of a high carat (22 ct) and made from gold coinage (under control of the mint) and thus needed to be hallmarked for consumer protection.