Monday 26 August 2019

Treasures: Ghoulish jewels dead valuable

An amethyst mourning brooch with human hair circa 1800 - Adams
An amethyst mourning brooch with human hair circa 1800 - Adams
Girl At A Piano by John Lavery

'If these mortuary jewels were as a whole very ugly, what shall be said of the hideous lumps of crudely manufactured jet, which it is still considered by some classes of society to be necessary to wear when 'in mourning'…" Thus moaned Bertram S Puckle in his book Funeral Customs (1926). Mourning jewellery, so popular in the 19th century, was by then going out of fashion. This couldn't happen quickly enough for Mr Puckle, who griped that Whitby, the seat of the jet industry, still carried on a trade in "these ghoulish appendages, impervious alike to enlightenment or ridicule".

However bizarre it may seem today, when your loved one died, one of the first things you did was go out and buy some suitably macabre jewellery to keep close to your person. More bizarre items included replacing a man's watch chain with a long length of his braided departed sweetheart's hair. Hair was also displayed in rings. Jewellery items were made in gothic black (for death) and crafted picture panels often included skulls and graveyard scenes.

The Victorians were particularly attached to their mourning jewellery and, unlikely as it now seems, much of it was made of coal. Jet is a lightweight form of lignite, formed from the wood of pre-historic trees. Jet was big business. In England, it was mined and processed in Whitby where, by 1873, the trade employed 1,500 workers, not counting the further 200 engaged in mining the raw material.

If Mr Puckle was around now, he'd be laughing on the other side of his face. Jet jewellery from the Victorian era can be worth a considerable amount of money.

"Jet looks almost like black plastic but it can have a similar value to pearls or coral," says the jeweller Garrett Weldon.

He admits that jet can be difficult to identify. It is always black, weighs very little, and is warm to the touch. When polished, it tends to glow rather than shine like glass. These qualities made it the material of choice for Victorian mourning jewellery - always black but never shiny.

Victorian women were expected to mourn their deceased husbands for a period of four years. They could graduate from 'full mourning' - a period in which they wore all black - to 'half mourning' when more muted colours were permitted. Some chose to wear black for the rest of their lives.

The customs and etiquette around mourning were at their most intense following the death of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria of England, in 1861. Victoria wore black for the rest of her life, and her subjects followed suit with a rigorous dress code for their own bereavements.

In the first stage of mourning, which lasted a year and a day for widows and widowers, jet or black amber was the only type of jewellery allowed.

In Ireland, where there was no jet to be mined, mourning jewellery was often made of bog oak. "Bog oak pieces can be even more valuable than jet, but they are easily damaged," says Weldon.

Because bog oak is light, it was a popular material for brooches and was often carved with Irish motifs like shamrocks and castles. According to Weldon, even a simple piece of 19th century mourning jewellery in bog oak might be worth a couple of hundred euros.

If you find a very fine piece in mint condition, it could be worth thousands. Materials considered suitable for 'half-mourning' included jewellery made from the hair of the deceased. Many pieces of jewellery, like lockets, opened to reveal a glass compartment where a lock of hair could be stored.

In other pieces, human hair became the predominant material. The hair was boiled, sorted into lengths and plaited around a mould, using a series of bobbin and weights. When the weaving was complete, the hair was boiled again, still on the mould. Then it was dried, removed from the mould, and taken to the jewellers for mounting.

Hair jewellery is rare, mainly because of the fragility of the material. "We've recently sold a bracelet that was entirely made from hair apart from the clasp. Hair is a very personal thing. It might not be to everyone's taste but the craftsmanship is extraordinary," says Weldon.

The hair bracelet was sold to a collector for about €1,000, but this was unusual.

"The problem with hair work is that it's not very popular," says Gráinne Pierse of Courtville Antiques. "A lot of people don't like the idea of wearing other people's hair." She is currently selling a woven hair necklace with five different pendant lockets, each containing the hair of a family member but feels that it is probably worth more than the €695 that she expects to sell it for.

Eighteenth-century mourning jewellery can be much more valuable, with Georgian memorial rings fetching up to €4,500. The value tends to be in the history and craftsmanship of the item, rather than the cost of the materials. For this reason, it's worth taking it to someone who can identify it properly.

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In the salerooms

National antiques Art & Vintage Fair

The National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will take place at South Court Hotel, Limerick, on Saturday and Sunday, November 14-15 from 11am-6pm.

This is the 25th year of the fair, which happens twice a year. To celebrate the anniversary, Hibernian Antique Fairs have announced that admission on both days will be free of charge.

The fair will include stands from around 100 dealers in antique, fine art and vintage wares, including several members of the Irish Antique Dealers Association.

Items on sale will include traditional fine antiques as well as vintage novelties. For further details, contact


A George III period Adam chimney piece sold for €17,000 at Sheppard's Castles, Manors and Mansions sale on October 20-22. It had been modestly estimated between €8,000 and €12,000.

A pair of 19th century satinwood and painted commodes (meaning cupboards rather than chamber pots) sold for €13,000. Paintings also performed well with the dramatic Venetian Festival, a harbour view with a gondola in the foreground, selling for €22,000. The oil on canvas was the work of Henri Malfroy (1895 to 1944) and had carried an upper estimate of €12,000.

A rather gloomy oil on canvas of a wooded lake scene with a boating party, estimated between €3,000 and €5,000, sold for €12,000. The painting was the work of James Arthur O'Connor (1792 to 1841) and came in a contemporary carved giltwood frame.

A gentle domestic scene of a Girl At A Piano attributed in the catalogue of Sir John Lavery (1956 to 1941) and estimated between €4,000 and €6,000 sold for €11,000.

In Sotheby's auction of Irish Art, which took place in London on October 21, a painting by Lavery sold for over £500,000 (almost €700,000). The painting, Japanese Switzerland, shows Lavery's wife Hazel with his step-daughter Alice who is clad for winter sports and tugging at her mother's hand.

Contarf Castle Antiques Fair

This Sunday, November 8 sees two antiques fairs on the east coast. Clontarf Castle Antiques Fair will offer the expected emphasis on seasonal gifts and antique and vintage jewellery.

Dealers with an eye on the market for festive tableware will be displaying much in the way of fine china, linen, silver flatware (that's cutlery and serving spoons) and Waterford crystal.

There will also be coins, rare books, and a selection of contemporary and 20th century Irish art from Treasures Art and Antiques of Athlone, including paintings by Ken Hamilton, Mark O'Neill, Arthur K Maderson, Percy French, and Pauline Bewick.

The fair opens at 11am and runs until 6pm and admission is €3.50.

For further details, call 087 2670607. Also on November 8, a fair organised by AVA Antique Fairs runs in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Dundalk, from 11am-6pm. Entry costs €2 and children are free.

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