Mystery mourning ring from 1737

28 August 2023

My personal collection mostly consists out of mourning jewellery. Rings, earrings and brooches that commemorate the deceased. This mourning ring from the first half of the 18th century holds several secrets. Let’s try to solve it together. Later in this blog, mourning jewellery specialist Sarah Nehama shares her point of view too.

Out of my budget

After years of studying mourning jewellery, I won the jackpot. Figuratively speaking. In 2019, I purchased this rare mourning ring in London. It felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity. At the time, the ring was way out of my budget. Instinctually I knew I had to buy it anyway. Before handing over my credit card, I decided to take a walk outside to get some fresh air. As far as you can call it fresh air. After all, I was standing in the heart of London. I simply followed the yellow lines near the pavement so I could get a grip on what was going on inside my head. Whilst passing numerous streets and admiring old building I soon knew what I had to do. Back to the shop. Back to my ring. I didn’t mind a temporary strict diet of water, rice and beans. I had already fallen in love. This was the investment piece I was looking for.

Mourning ring for John Hogeson

A little skull. Rococo scrollwork. Buttery yellow gold and black enamel. It was a 10 out of 10 for me. The ultimate find. I’m still grateful though, for my past self to pull the trigger and to buy it. This is one of the most cherished piece of jewellery I own. The ring is dedicated John Hogeson who died on the 31st of May in 1737. He was only 13 years old. The typical Rococo style scrollwork ribbon was very mainstream back then. The flowers however aren’t typical. We do know that the rings came in all sorts of designs, especially in the early 1700s. When you turn the ring you see a lovely butt – and I happen to love a good ring butt. This rosette shape was also common during the late 17th and early 18th century. Turning it to the front again you see a crisp depiction of a hand-drawn skull under a faceted piece of rock crystal.

Three mysteries

Now, I have 3 mysteries to share with you. The first one is John himself. I haven’t been able to find him in online archives. The second one is the colour of the enamel. White often shows the passing of a child. Until which age did they use white enamel? And is it true that in the 18th century there was more flexibility with the use of enamel colour? Last but not least: is the ring truly authentic?

Authentic or a copy?

Let’s start with the third mystery. The past couple of years I have spoken to several professionals in the field about this ring. Specialized jewellers who make copies that look like authentic pieces agreed: it’s definitely the real thing. To make a copy of this level, you wouldn’t make any money. There simply isn’t a return on investment because of the costs. I was also told that you have to be extremely skilled to make this kind of rolled and rounded inner band. Even though it looks like a little detail, it holds important information on the authenticity as you can easily mess it up. The painted skull is genuine too. This design matches others from that period. Most skulls were painted on metal and placed under the crystal. We can’t see what is under the skull. Most likely, you will find a lock of hair. All in all, we’re off to a good start!

Online community: Sarah Nehama

I love how the internet connects people. Through Instagram I got in touch with mourning jewellery expert Sarah Nehama. She wrote one of my favourite books In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry. Tip: get in touch with her personally to buy a signed copy.

This year, Sarah helped me to find John Hogeson in online databases. The ring isn’t hallmarked unfortunately. Sarah told me ‘these types of rings were almost never hallmarked, so that’s not unusual.’ We both couldn’t find John online. Sarah: ‘Such a gorgeous ring, Kim. Sometimes it’s hard to find records for children. The data is usually in either church records (for baptisms and burials) or in the National Archives. I don’t know where one would go to physically look for this – for one, we don’t know where he was born or died. I was hoping to find something as the family must have had means to afford a ring like this. And presumably others for the funeral as well. Something we just can’t find the records. This ring is definitely not fake and authentic all the way!’

Colour of the enamel

The enamel in this particular mourning ring is so well preserved. We can’t find touch-ups. It might have been kept in a drawer for hundreds of years. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Research taught me even more on the colour of the enamel. White enamel would be more acceptable for children, black for adults. Sarah adds: ‘White was often used for children, but not always. I’ve seen black used for babies too.’ Mind you, back then in England marriages were arranged when you were little. Contracts could be made above the age of 7 and even the wedding could take place around that age. The marriage would be valid from when both parties came to the age of consent: 12 for girls and 14 for boys. This was defined by the church. Back to John. He was only 13 when he died, but perhaps he was married already. Does this mean we should think of him as a man/ husband (to be) instead of a child? In that case, black enamel makes sense.

Your help is highly appreciated

All in all, I am still incredibly happy with my purchase. The mourning ring is the absolute highlight of my personal collection. We now do know more about both the authenticity and the colour of the enamel. Unfortunately, the first mystery remains unsolved. I can’t help asking… Perhaps you can tell me more about John Hogeson? That would be wonderful. Do send me an email if you have something to share with me on this topic.

Photo credits: all photos of this piece in my personal collection are made by Moniek Kuipers.