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Collectables

These 'throwback' fashion oddities are expected to rake in thousands

Objects on auction in Cape Town tell of hard lives and early deaths 200 years ago, when loved ones might be mourned in rings made of gold, enamel . . . and the deceased’s own hair

04 March 2018 - 00:00 By MARY CORRIGALL

It seems inconceivable in the digital era, when grieving friends and relatives have a bank of photographs to swipe through, that in the 18th century people needed other ways to remember their dead.
And there was a lot of death. Poor medical knowledge, bad living conditions, contaminated drinking water and no rubbish removal meant that people dropped off like flies in the 1700s. In England more people died than were baptised every year.
The high death rate gave rise to some beautiful tokens, such as mourning rings. These rings, despite their sad provenance, are still sought after by collectors of antique jewellery, including in South Africa, where unusual 18th-century accessories go on the Strauss & Co auction tomorrow.Mourning rings were made to outlast the wearer and were, in effect, tiny gravestones. They were defined by oval plaques with painted symbols and texts alluding to loss. A number of the rings on auction features a weeping woman by a grave. It was made in 1786 and commemorates the death of a child at the age of one year and eight months.
The most macabre aspect of these rings, not always discernible to the naked eye, is the inclusion of the deceased's hair. Hair, which does not decay, was included so that a part of the loved one would always be close to the bereaved wearer.
Another of the Georgian rings on offer features a plaque of blue and white enamel and the initials AB, resting on a bed of hair. No one knows who Ann Booth was, but she lives on in the ring that bears her name and tells us that she died aged 41 on June 23 1787.
The mourning rings and other items on auction were collected by Vyvyan Myerson, who lived in Cape Town and travelled the world collecting historical artefacts."He clearly appreciated good craftsmanship," says Vanessa Phillips, head of Strauss & Co's decorative arts department. "He wasn't like contemporary collectors who focus on one area; he loved all sorts of things. The mourning rings represent a fraction of the objects he accumulated that are on this auction."
Where mourning rings speak of death, other precious objects recall the appalling living conditions of the time. Also in Myerson's collection is a vinaigrette. In the 19th century, this small gold hexagonal box, engraved with flowers and foliage, would have contained a tiny sponge dipped in fragrant oil.
The pleasing aroma rising from this delicate accessory, linked by a chain to a ring, was designed to mask terrible smells. Streets stank to high heaven and so did people, but if you were rich enough to afford a vinaigrette, you could hold it up to your nose as you walked.
These objects not only give us insight into how people once lived and suffered, but show us how functional objects were crafted with extreme care and detail. Fine jewellery might still be made with an eye to eternity, but those items containing our most precious memories and images - the phones we wear on our bodies - are certainly not built to outlast us.And although they are symbols of mortality, mourning rings contain tangible proof that a person lived, died and was missed - that grief remains captured in solid form long after all memory has faded and flown.
FASHION ODDITIES THROUGH THE AGES
Workout clothes
In the 16th century, wealthy people were so desperate to appear larger than life that they wore heavily padded clothing. Cotton, wool and sawdust were inserted into panels of garments to bulk up wearers’ silhouettes and expand the girth of their arms, legs and bellies.
Style tippet
In the Middle Ages, wealthy people showed off a bizarre fashion item dubbed the Zebellini – a pelt with the head of the animal still attached.Small step for womankind
Keeping women homebound may have been the motivation behind the “hobble skirt” that trended between 1908 and 1914. As per its moniker, it had such a narrow hem it would only allow the wearer to take tiny steps and hobble about.
Melting moments
Ancient Egyptians wore perfume cones on their heads. Or at least that appears to be the case, based on paintings showing women with these bullet-shaped accessories. Apparently they were made from perfumed animal fat, which would gradually melt in the heat, releasing a pleasing aroma.• A collection of mourning rings will be among 600 lots on sale at the Strauss & Co auction at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town tomorrow. Visit straussart.co.za to view the lots and catalogue.
Sponsored text. Corrigall is an art consultant...

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