Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember that you will die”. It is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It also describes mourning jewelry and trinkets popular from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Those mourning the dead would wear these items both to memorialize the dead and keep reminders of one’s own mortality. It was a time, let’s not forget, when people’s life expectancies did not fetch too far, their lives often abruptly interrupted by wars, plagues and famines.
Only jewelry can convey a harsh reality in such an elegant form. While Memento Mori jewelry dates back to ancient times, most of the earliest examples we see are from the 15th century, with inscribed messages on the pieces that conveyed the warning of imminent death. Symbols soon became en vogue and replaced text, particularly the image of a death’s head: the remainders of life—bones and skulls—symbolize what once existed. Full length skeletons offered a different design option in the creation of Memento Mori jewelry. Many other symbols were also prominent: worms, snakes, graves and bats were all prevalent within the scope of Memento Mori iconography. Memento Mori jewelry has many variations in design, from the outright blatant expressions of death to the more subtle and beautiful implications of mortality through intricate details.
Skull jewels have witnessed revivals over the decades. One of the most romantic recent expressions of memento mori jewels were launched in 2012 when Madame Victoire de Castellane created a series of skull couples bound by love for eternity, the “Reines et Rois” high jewelry collection. Crafted with exquisite details, such as platinum lace collars and bows set with a rich diversity of diamonds shapes and cuts, the skulls themselves were hand-carved by a master craftsman in Paris using unusual and mysterious gemstones which shone an eerie light when placed next to a candle. The skulls were presented together as couples, as rings matching pendants, and each piece was unique.
Perhaps a more daring version of skulls would be the famous skeletons designed by antique jewelry expert Madame Lydia Courteille, who showcases her modern creations in a purple velvet boudoir on the outskirts of the Place Vendome in Paris.
For years she has made skulls and skeletons an international signature of her bold approach to jewelry, using black Gold and diamonds to highlight the shadowy contours of dancing full length skeletons. Here, skulls and diamonds marry together in a glamorous and macabre parade.
There are also the classical collectibles for any serious jewelry lover, who must pay their dues to the most sought after memento mori creator, the Venetian house of Codognato. With the same trepidations one might imagine feeling before entering the private salons of JAR, going to Codognato requires patience and determination. For like many traditional jewelers, Codognato does not eagerly create skulls for anybody.
Reservation in the selling approach is associated to a desire to create and hand out unique, artistic jewels for wearers who can appreciate, respect and love these unusual skulls. Made with a specific enamel coating, the Gold skulls are set with rose cut diamonds, respecting the traditions implemented by family generations of designers and craftsmen in the Codognato dynasty.
Skulls do continue to live, reviving with the fashion trends, but always collected as classical art pieces by any jewelry lover. It is not the expression of death, or life, which should determine these acquisitions. Rather, I would like to suggest approaching skulls the same way we would in any other genuine inspiring art piece: with the emotion denuded from convention, with pure eternal admiration.
- Dior Joaillerie, platinum and diamonds, “Reines et Rois” Collection
- Lydia Courteille, “Skeleton”earrings in diamonds and blackened gold. “Black Mass in Paris” collection
- Attilio Codognato enamel and diamond. "Memento Mori" collection