Image of ring with skull symbolising death.
jewellery history, symbolism, Uncategorized, weird things about jewellery

S is for Skull: understanding symbolism in jewellery

In the alphabet of jewellery symbolism, S is for skull. Skull jewellery might feel like the preserve of the modern teenage Goth but it has a long and intriguing history. With gaping eye and nose sockets and a mouth full of teeth, a skull is the most recognisably human part of a skeleton and a jarring reminder of death.

The skull in jewellery is a potent reminder of mortality but, when you set it with gems, it can be gloriously decadent and Gothic. Jewellers have used skulls in religious jewels, as fashion and even for entertainment.

Death and the Devil attack two women who are looking in a hand-held mirror. Death holds a skull and an hour glass. Another demon stands on the Devil's head brandishing a spear and another flies above the women. The women are expensively dressed in contemporary costume, head-dresses and jewellery and stand in front of a dressing table with bottles and pots. The skull symbolises the ever presence of death, even for the young and beautiful.
Engraving by Daniel Hopfer, ca. 1520. Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1520, Daniel Hopfer made a print which sums up the appeal of skull jewellery. In his drawing, a ragged skeleton holding a skull and a frightening devil follow two finely dressed women who are wearing expensive jewellery. Although the women are enjoying the luxuries of aristocratic life, death and the devil are at their heels, showing the hollowness of secular life. Skull jewellery is a symbolic way to show that even in life, we are always on the edge of death.

Remember that you must die…

By its nature, your skull is only visible after you die. So, looking at a skull, perhaps on your gold signet ring is a powerful reminder of mortality. Memento mori or ‘remember that you must die’ jewellery was enormously popular in Renaissance Europe. Christian theology taught that while life on earth was full of pain and sin, a better future was waiting for the redeemed soul in heaven. Daily life and business were important but not nearly as vital as ensuring that Christians had a good death and the promise of eternal life.

Gold signet ring, with a circular bezel engraved with a skull surrounded by the name 'EDWARD x COPE', with behind a fragment of bone, presumably a talisman or relic, England, early 1600-50.
Edward Cope’s gold signet ring, ca. 1600-50. Victoria and Albert Museum
Back of ring showing the small piece of bone set in an oval opening and the smooth gold hoop of the ring. The bone complements the skull on the bezel of the ring, symbolising mortality.
Back of Edward Cope’s signet ring showing a small piece of bone.

Jewellery decorated with skulls, cross bones, and even entire skeletons was a way to wear a daily reminder of what was truly important and also to advertise your faith. A skull signet ring, like the one made for Edward Cope in the mid 16th century, combined a useful jewel with a reminder of death. Not only did Cope’s ring have a skull clutching a bone in its teeth on the bezel but the back of the ring was set with a piece of actual bone (was this human or animal?). The back of the ring is set open so that the bone, like a religious relic, can touch the skin directly.

Cope wasn’t the only person to choose a skull for his signet ring. Skull rings were set with revolving bezels (skull on one side, personal mark on the other) or with expensive gemstones, like this glorious diamond and enamel ring.

Enamelled gold ring, the bezel in the form of a skull and cross-bones in a border of rubies. The skull is a symbol of death and eternal judgment.
Ruby and enamel skull ring, Europe, ca. 1550. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Signet rings, rosary beads, combs, pendants and brooches were all decorated with emblems of mortality in Renaissance and early modern Europe. In an age of wars and plagues, death must have felt ever present.

Oval gold jewel with a rock crystal cover.Two angels are holding a skull above the cipher GR worked in gold wire 
against a background panel of woven hair. The skull symbolises death and the resurrection.
Mourning slide with initials and two angels holding up a skull. England, about 1700. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Know yourself…

Enamelled gold mourning ring, the hexagonal bezel with incurving sides, enamelled in white with a skull surrounded by the inscription + NOSSE TE. YPSUM and on the edge + DYE TO LYVE with volutes and foliated shoulders enamelled in black. The skull symbolises mortality.

Behind the popularity of skull jewellery was the idea of self knowledge. Acknowledging mortality was a way of facing up to the realities of life. This idea comes through strongly in a ring set with a white enamelled skull and engraved with the motto ‘Nosse te ypsum’ (Know yourself). It was made around 1550-1600

In 1617, Nicholas Fenay of Yorkshire left a very similar ring to his son:

‘having these letters NF for my name thereupon ingraved with this notable poesie about the same letters NOSCE TEIPSUM [sic know thyself] to the intent that my said son William Fenay in the often beholding and considering of that worthy poesye may be the better put in mynde of himselfe and of his estate knowing this that to know a man’s selfe is the beginning of wisdom’. 

Enamelled gold memento mori pendant in the form of a coffin, with cross bones on the suspension chains and a skull pendant. The coffin opens to disclose an enamelled skeleton, the initials I.C.S. above its head and the inscription 'HIE. LIEG. ICH. VND. WARTH. AVF. DIH' (Here I lie and wait for you, in German).

This fabulously grotesque pendant boasts a coffin, with four resident skulls, a hanging skull and a chain of crossbones. The German inscription can be translated as ‘Here I lie and wait for you’.

Jewels set with little coffins were a tiny version of double decker tomb monuments which showed an image of the decaying corpse under the lifelike effigy on the top.

Although the concept is grisly, the jewel is beautifully made. It’s an elegant piece of fashionable jewellery as much as a reminder of death and eternal life. The black enamel symbolises death while the white enamel is a faithful recreation of bones.

The electrical skull

Stick pin in the form of a skull, gold and enamel with diamond sparks, containing electric terminals that can animate the skull's eyes and jaw, mark of Auguste-Germain Cadet-Picard, France about 1867

If S is for Skull meant death and the resurrection to the early modern wearer, by the nineteenth century, things had lightened up. Nineteenth century skull jewellery could be much more entertaining. Electrifying skull themed tie-pins were a sensation at parties. The Victoria and Albert Museum hold one of the only surviving electric jewels, a skull pin which still has the electric terminals but which has lost its tiny battery.

At the Paris Exhibition of 1867, Auguste-Germain Cadet Picard showed electrical jewels based on the invention of Gustave Trouvé. Trouvé had combined the new and exciting ability to make tiny electric batteries with jewellery, creating ‘electro-mobile’ jewels. Trouvé’s ‘Lilliputian battery’ could be hidden in a jacket pocket and discreetly switched on and off. A writer from La Nature described the sensational effect at a party in Paris in 1879:

Suppose you are carrying one of these jewels below your chin. Whenever someone takes a look at it, you discreetly slip your hand into the pocket of your waistcoat, tip the tiny battery to horizontal and immediately, the death’s head rolls its glittering eyes and grinds its teeth.

Kevin Desmond, Gustave Trouvé: French Electrical Genius (1839-1902)

It’s fair to say that they didn’t meet universal approval. In 1877, Charles Blanc felt that jewellers were working too hard to find novelties, at the expense of good taste:

Occasionally, the French jewellers allow themselves to be mislead by the fever of emulation or the desire of exciting astonishment. In our exhibitions electric jewels of startling novelty have been displayed. A Voltaic battery, small enough to be carried in the pocket, gave movement to a number of miniature objects arranged for the hair, as brooches or pins; a rabbit played a drum; a silver head, with ruby eyes and enamelled lips, made horrible grimaces; a convulsed butterfly and a bird flapping its wings were also represented, with numerous other toys, no doubt manufactured for exportation, and well calculated to delight savages.

Charles Blanc, Art in Ornament and Dress, 1877

It’s quite a comedown – from a serious examination of mortality to a party piece. If you want to try to make your own electric skull pin, the University of Victoria produced a fascinating kit and set of instructions.

Two tie-pins, the first  is topped by a skull realistically modelled and decorated with cream and black enamel, the articulated jaw operated by a secondary pin The skull pin is joined by an enamelled bone link connecting chain to a second pin, topped by a set of crossbones.
Double pin with skull and crossbones, in the style of Gustave Trouvé. Sotheby’s, 2017.

Further reading

For more on jewellery symbolism, try A is for Anchor, B is for Butterfly or M is for Moon.

Memento mori jewellery is well covered in Sarah Nehama’s In Death Lamented: the tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry (2012)

Here is a quick list of books on sentimental jewellery.

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