The Long-Lived Appeal of Skull Jewelry

Beloved by rockers and history buffs alike, skull jewelry has stayed relevant across centuries.
Wendy Brandes rings
From left: Wendy Brandes dragon in lapis lazuli, diamond and gold ring and memento mori skull ring in onyx, diamond and Tsavorite garnet

Edgy? Morbid? Timeless? Depending on your point of view, any of these adjectives could be used to describe jewelry featuring skulls. For the historically inclined, skulls are a popular symbol in memento mori jewelry, a design style dating back to the 16th century intended to remind wearers that one day they will die. In other words, it was a message to the God-fearing masses that you better live right or face the consequences later.

Skulls are a favorite of journalist-turned-jewelry-designer Wendy Brandes, whose eponymous collection prominently features the symbol (along with snakes, dragons, hearts and flowers). Brandes chatted with The Study about her affinity for skulls and their enduring appeal.

skull ring
Wendy Brandes Skull and Bones locket memento mori signet ring (shown closed and open)

What attracts you to skulls when designing jewelry?

Skulls are a portal to another time, linking me to the skull- and skeleton-themed jewelry of 16th- through 18th-century Europe. When I put a skull ring on, I can envision myself stepping through a picture frame and into a portrait from the Tudor era, for instance.

Are you influenced by the symbolism behind memento mori and mourning jewelry?

The memento mori concept appeals to me on multiple levels. Yes, it’s a reminder that our time is short, but that same message is a compelling reason to make sure we carpe diem — seize the day. Then there’s the idea of universality and sense of connection. There are experiences that all humans share, no matter how different we think we are from each other.

Shah & Shah Distinctive Jewelers yellow gold and hand-carved coral skull ring

Why do you think your clients gravitate toward skulls? Is it for a rock-n-roll look, or something deeper?

For some, it’s rock-n-roll, for others it’s a love of history. But for all, it’s the frisson of pleasure we get from the provocative.

Skull pendant
Fine-jewelry charms by DRU. include the yellow gold skull pendant with white diamond eyes and Only God Can Judge Me medallion.

Are you inspired by vintage and antique designs?

Very much so. I might have gravitated to antiques professionally if I didn’t personally crave bigger and bolder jewelry. There are also so many manufacturing techniques that didn’t exist in the past. I can push my materials further.

Do you think there are any misconceptions about skull jewelry?

That it can ever be out of style.

Carpe Diem necklace
Wendy Brandes gold necklace with black diamond skull pendant medallion

Do you have a favorite skull piece in your collection?

I don’t like to favor one of my children over the others, so I’ll mention my newest. A skull-shaped black diamond — accented with diamond baguettes — sits at the center of an 18-karat yellow gold medallion. The words “carpe diem” are engraved around the skull, but backwards, so that you can read them when you look in the mirror. Put on this necklace, take one more moment to appreciate your own reflection, and sally forth into the world!