Queen Victoria’s Love of Jewels Went With Her to the Grave

Queen Victoria’s Love of Jewels Went With Her to the Grave

Queen Victoria took her jewelry obsession to the grave. On her deathbed, she selected stacks of bracelets, layers of necklaces, and rings (one for every finger) for her burial, and the pieces she chose included the British monarch’s precious mourning jewels, the mementos she commissioned to remember lost loved ones, and romantic pieces from her husband.

That’s the power of jewelry. It’s often weighed down with much more than gold and stones; it embodies love and loss and is a tangible memory of something precious. Now, there is renewed interest in commemorative jewels—and even a comeback of locks of hair encased in pieces. The more personal, the better.

It’s a trend that the jewelry-loving Queen Victoria embraced when she famously turned her loves and tragic losses into jewelry mementos. Known as the monarch of mourning, she shrouded herself in black clothing when her husband Prince Albert died in 1871, and she commissioned jewelry inscribed with his name and words of love and set with locks of his hair, and she did the same when her daughter Alice died in 1878 at age 35. She also had pieces made to recall happy occasions, such as her great love affair with Prince Albert and births of her children.

“Jewelry is a beautiful tool to celebrate life and loss,” says British designer Shaun Leane, who has made countless sentimental commissions for clients and friends including designer Sarah Burton and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson. One of his most significant pieces was a signet ring made for his close friend the designer Alexander McQueen, which he created in honor of their friend Isabella Blow who died in 2007. It featured an engraved quartz stone over glass which encased a lock of Blow’s hair. “Lee (McQueen) wore the ring every day,” says Leane, “and we buried him in that ring.”


A mourning bracelet with plaited hair crafted by Shaun Leane.

Courtesy of Shaun Leane

Over the past two years, Leane says requests have come pouring in from friends and clients who wanted sentimental jewelry to celebrate the people and pets they lost and loved ones who they couldn’t see due to COVID restrictions. These designs were inspired by Victorian-era concepts, such as locks of hair encased in glass roundels and Latin-inscribed scrolls with concealed messages, which he remade in contemporary styles. The designs are part of his expanded Memoirs collection that will be debuting next year.

Leane is an expert in the art of Victorian-era jewelry. As a young apprentice in London’s Hatton Garden, he specialized in antique restoration and worked on both sentimental mourning jewels and even earlier memento mori jewels that featured macabre symbols of death, like skeletons and cross bones (memento mori, after all, translates to a reminder that you will die).

shaun leane pendant

A pendant by Shaun Leane featuring plaited hair.

Courtesy of Shaun Leane

Leane was schooled in the art of Victorian era hair jewelry, learning to plait hair specifically for the jewelry, and encase it in glass. He’s cut and plaited the hair of loved ones who have passed away, and also the hair of the children of several friends to celebrate their births. He even made three bracelets for himself that commemorate his cats, each with symbols of their personalities and their hair encased in glass roundels.

Hair sounds like a macabre material, but it has been used in jewelry for centuries. “I’m fascinated by the concept of using something directly from a person in a piece of jewelry, and the emotion that is carried with it,” he says. “When you hold those roundels, you feel close to that person. These become a person’s most treasured and valued pieces of jewelry.”

Antique jewelry dealer and designer Ashley Zhang was also motivated by Victorian era mourning jewelry for her new collection of symbolic pieces. After losing her father, she came across Victorian mourning pieces that were so beautiful they inspired her to create designs reimagining the classic motifs in stylishly feminine pieces. These include black and white enamel bands with willow and scroll motifs, and inscribed with personalized names and dates, and pendants with urns and in the shape of lilies of the valley, which can be more subtle symbols of death.

ashley zhang pendant

A pendant designed by Ashley Zhang, which features an image of an urn.

Ashley Zhang

That’s exactly what Queen Victoria was trying to achieve with her own symbolic commissions—something pretty and poignant.

Even in death, the British monarch made jewelry fashionable and meaningful. When she passed on January 22, 1901, she was adorned with dozens of jewels and buried with other sentimental mementos, as she had dictated, including a plaster cast of Prince Albert’s hand, her lace wedding veil, and a photo of her personal attendant John Brown (who was rumored to be her lover) along with a lock of his hair.

She proved you can, in fact, take it with you.

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