Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jewelry Biz - A Momento Mori for Martha

One of the many reasons why I love estate jewelry is that each piece has a story behind it. And most often, a love story.
Admittedly sometimes you know the story and sometimes you don't, but even not knowing the exact provenance of a piece of jewelry there is a sense that you are holding something meaningful.
Historically, jewelry was not commissioned or purchased in a casual way. There was almost always a specific reason that jewelry was created, gifted and worn.
With the exception of engagement or wedding rings, jewelry today has become primarily a fashion item. Prior to the 20th Century most jewelry while a form of adornment, had some specific significance such as a signet ring with a family crest or a tiara or practical purpose such as a fibula or chatelaine.
On occasion we can still see signet rings and tiaras...especially if we accustomed to attending formal events with European Royalty. But today one never sees a category of jewelry that was so commonly worn during the Georgian and Victorian periods, Mourning and Momento Mori jewelry, typically a locket or brooch often with a lock of hair, worn in memory of of a loved one.

Which brings me to this:

Christie's to auction Thomas Jefferson's watch key

New York--Christie's upcoming Americana Week 2010 sale in New York will feature a rare keepsake owned by much-revered American president Thomas Jefferson--a watch key that contains a lock of hair belonging to his wife, who died at the age of 33.

Conceived as a "memento mori," the engraved gold watch key contains a braided lock of hair from Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, who failed to recover from illness after giving birth to the couple's sixth child and died on Sept. 6, 1782, according to a Christie's press release.

It is believed that Jefferson, who never remarried, likely commissioned the watch key as a poignant reminder of his young wife in the years following her death. Two months after she passed away, Jefferson's grief is documented in a letter to the Marquis de Chastellux in which he described how he was "emerging from the stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as [she] was whose loss occasioned it."
The front of the key is engraved with Martha Jefferson's birth and death dates, and the reverse bears a clear case through which the braided lock of hair is visible. Made in England or France, this watch key could have been acquired abroad, when Jefferson served as commissioner and minister in Paris from 1784 to 1789, or from an American retailer who imported European watches.

The watch key is estimated to sell for somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000 at the auction, which is slated for Jan. 21, 22 and 25 at Christie's in New York.

Today it is difficult to think of Thomas Jefferson without thinking of his complicated personal life and his extended family. But this watch key, like so many pieces of antique jewelry, has a story of deep devotion behind it.

Romantic isn't it?

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5 comments:

Wildernesschic said...

I love jewelry with history .. my own ring is Art Deco. Its about owning a little piece of history.
ps I have tagged you on my blogx

Belle de Ville said...

Wildernesschic: Lucky you to have an Art Deco ring,they are gorgeous.
And thanks for he tag.

Miss Cavendish said...

Braids and locks of hair in jewelry are so romantic. Does anyone incorporate this element any more?

NorthWestLondonGirlInTheCountry said...

I have some beautiful special pieces from grandmother and I enjoy wearing them and thinking of her....

Belle de Ville said...

Miss C: I do on occasion see hair in jewelry, from a few strands in a pendant, to an entire bracelet woven entirely from hair. For me there is something a little unsettling about holding jewelry made out to the hair of someone who died 150 years ago. I never see it incorporated in jewelry made within the last 115 years.
London Girl: It's lovely to have jewelry from your grandmother and mother, especially knowing that each piece was important to them.

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