The expression ‘memento mori’ developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.
Memento mori jewelry is the name given to sixteenth through eighteenth-century jewelry that was created as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the need to live piously. Translation from the Latin, “remember you must die,” is very clearly indicative of the objective of the theme. Skulls, skeletons, and coffins, often worked in gold and enamel were the predominant motifs vividly illustrating the underlying sentiment of pending mortality. An important part of the memento mori jewel was the use of text to express thoughts of death, mortality, remembrance, and religion. Composed in Latin, French or English they were either engraved or enameled on the outside of a jewel or secretly on the inside, viewable only by the intended recipient.
Rings were the most common form of memento mori jewels although they could also take the form of lockets, pendants, and brooches. The sixteenth century saw an increase in bequests for mourning rings. Often these were just plain bands engraved with a sentiment referencing the departed (sometimes specifically outlined in the will.) Money was left for the purpose of creating the rings along with a specified list of mourners. In the mid-seventeenth century, the theme merged with memorial jewelry and it became popular to have the hair of the departed person, along with relevant dates and initials worked into the piece alongside the skull, coffin symbols and message. The tradition flourished in the eighteenth century but the name of the individual being memorialized became more prominent, the mourning motifs became somewhat less gruesome and the use of intricate hairwork and elaborate allegories were de rigueur. [ Source: Antique Jewelry University ].
Memento Mori is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition. After a major military victory, the triumphant military generals were paraded through the streets to the roars of the masses.
Antique Memento Mori Ring
The ring in the above photograph is currently for sale online – it’s alternately currently listed on eBay with a “make and offer” option (it’s not mine, but I would love to have it!). Here’s some more info on this piece:
- Age: Made in 1703 during the reign of Queen Anne.
- Measurements: Weight is 4.2 grams. Approximately US size 7 3/4. Width of band is a tad under 4mm.
- Description: Very rare skeleton skull memento mori ring. An arching ribbon of gold, like a typical wedding ring, but with a modelled skull, bared teeth, gouged eye sockets depicted on the surface. Skulls and skeleton rings were a reminder 300 years ago of the ever-presence of Death and that we should remember that we are mere mortals. Hence the name Memento Mori Jewelry.
- Made of very high quality gold. It is at least 22k and possibly more.
- Marks: As previously mentioned, we acid tested the gold, which is at least 22k and possibly higher. Inside the shank has a number of engraved marks some more legible than others. The script appears to read: J L obyt 27:Sept 1703 Etat sue 730 with an impressed hallmark that is not clearly visible/legible.
- Condition: Good with minor wear commensurate with age.
- Provenance: The Edith Weber Jewelry Collection. Edith, Barry and Sonja were leading antique jewelry dealers in the USA since the early 1960’s.