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Whitby Jet

For a brief couple of decades in the late 19th century, black jet jewellery was a must-have accessory for the fashionable. Royal interest after Great Exhibition, and Queen Victoria's patronage following the death of Prince Albert created a demand which employed hundreds, exhausted supplies and invited imitation.

Jet is fossilised driftwood from the Jurassic period. It is truly black, as implied by the descriptor 'as black as jet'. It doesn't get as cold as glass. It can be polished to a high shine and carved easily, although it takes a skilled lapidary to execute detailed designs, as jet can fracture. Unlike most gemstones, it is very lightweight, allowing large pieces to be worn comfortably. Jet has been used for jewellery and talismans for centuries; Roman and Viking examples exist. Deposits of jet are in several countries, but the jet found around Whitby, in the north of England, is prized for its quality as a jewel. It is less prone to cracking than some foreign imports.

In the 1800s, Victorians wanted to take advantage of the establishment of annual holidays. With improving transport links, Whitby became a popular seaside destination. Items made of the local jet were the ideal souvenirs to take home to friends and family, allowing the early Whitby Jet industry to grow. Whitby Jet gained international recognition when jewellery and ornaments were showcased at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London by Isaac Greenbury; he even received a bracelet commission for the Empress of France.

The adoption of jet as a jewel for mourning, and societal pressures to conform to fashions - especially those instigated by the royals - created a boom time for the industry. In 1830, when George IV died, there was a decree that the court should wear jet ornaments during the mourning period. Strict rules governed mourning practices throughout Victoria's reign (1837-1901), and pure-black jet was one of the few permitted adornments. Even that was supposed to be matte or dull during deepest mourning, but photos show this stipulation wasn't rigidly followed. Later on, mourners could wear jewellery that was lustrous and only mostly black.

Jet's short term success was driven by three things: its social acceptability, huge dresses requiring equally huge impactful jewellery, and lengthy mourning periods socially enforced on widows and mothers. Widows were expected to publicly mourn their husbands for 2.5 years and infant mortality was high. Some women, like Victoria herself, never stopped wearing mourning attire after they were widowed. Jet's almost plastic-like lightness allowed very large chains to be constructed, multi-drop cameo necklaces and collars. Just about every necklace would be called a statement piece today. Smaller chains and bead strings could be combined and worn together.

The decline of the Whitby Jet industry set in around the mid 1870's. Several factors contributed: jet was hand-carved, and the production of items was labour-intensive and required craftsmen to train for years. This made jet prohibitively expensive for many people, and a market was created for cheaper imitations, such as Vulcanite/Ebonite, pressed horn, and black glass. The supply of the best quality hard jet was running out after the boom years, and using soft or imported jet led to broken items and unhappy customers. Also the chunky, dramatic style of jet jewellery was outdated as Art Nouveau emerged. Smaller dresses were adopted with more delicate jewellery. The Whitby Jet industry generally couldn't or didn't adapt to the change. Apart from an odd innovator, there was a reluctance to update techniques and patterns, even when jet jewellery could have found a place in the geometric monochrome fashions of 1920s Art Deco.

The strong association of jet with mourning was possibly its biggest problem. The Boer War followed by the two World Wars changed British society massively. Victorian-style mourning lessened, then became a matter of personal choice. People had been living under the shadow of conflict for a long time, losing fathers, brothers and sons. Women were needed to fill vacant roles and pitch in with the domestic war efforts, not hide away. There was no appetite left for elaborate, performative grief, and no one wanted jewellery that was a constant reminder of death. The Whitby Jet industry contracted back to souvenir-making; the last few jet workers trained in the Victorian ways of carving died in the mid 20th century.

For several decades jet jewellery was deeply unpopular, except to a few collectors. There was a revival of interest in the 1980s, and the prices for antique jet have increased. Today there are many shops selling jet jewellery in Whitby, and while it hasn't got the attention of the nation as it once did, the business is there. There is the Museum of Whitby Jet in Wesley Hall which houses examples of the finest Victorian pieces. Modern jet jewellery cannot match their complexity and intricate carving: no one has the level of skill, nor is it economical to spend the time doing it. Also, the raw jet supply is still limited. None of the 300 or so historical mines are operational, and beachcombing is the only way to legally obtain it. Small pieces are regularly washed up on the local beaches, and each jewellery-maker competes to find it amongst the lookalike sea coal, tar and black stones.

If you try to buy new Whitby Jet jewellery today, you'll find several shops selling pretty much the same stock. They appear to be part of a group which includes W. Hamond, and their websites are all similar. Thin layers of jet are inlaid into silver or gold. Amongst the modern minimalism there is a large selection of interesting 'gothic' designs, including bats, spiders, cathedral windows and images of Whitby Abbey. This is to appeal to attendees of the twice-yearly Whitby Gothic Weekend. Whitby is a popular tourist destination for members of the goth subculture: fans of gothic rock music, and usually gothic horror imagery. The WGW festival was established there in the mid 1990s because Bram Stoker visited and set parts of his gothic novel Dracula in Whitby. Jet itself, and its funereal connections, complements the goth aesthetic of predominantly black clothing.

If you want new solid jet jewellery in the Victorian style, the closest you'll find is produced by the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre. Their 'Greenbury' range is a highlight, including pendants and drop earrings carved with the Greenbury family's signature faceted pattern. I bought a pair of carved forget-me-not studs. Their shop houses a genuine Victorian jet workshop, relocated there when it was discovered intact in a Whitby attic. Another distinctive independent shop is the Ebor Jetworks, home to a second Whitby Jet Museum (the collection of an accredited gemmologist and expert Whitby Jet researcher). Jet jewellery is made and sold downstairs, and as in the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, you can see the carvers at work on their craft.

Several Whitby shops sell genuine antique jet jewellery, including the Ebor Jetworks and W. Hamond. Expect to spend a lot of money to acquire a piece of any size, but at least you'll be sure of its provenance. It's possible to purchase jet from antique shops or online for less, but it can be tricky to distinguish jet from its less valuable Victorian imposters, especially if you can't handle the item. It's best to research the jet simulants before buying: good references I've found are the Ebor website and the books by Helen Muller. Small bar brooches are the cheapest bits to start collecting, and are easy to find for sale. Cameos and pendants with painted porcelain are also quite common, especially those featuring a 'Tyrolean boy' (a romanticised image of a boy wearing a green hat, named for the Tyrol region of Europe). I'm fond of items with the decorative monograms IMO (In Memory Of) and AEI (Amnity, Eternity, Infinity).

I have one verified jet brooch, and a small collection of others which I suspect and hope are jet based on my research. I possibly have a jet locket and a necklace-length watch chain. I was lucky to obtain some shorter chain pieces, and I've incorporated those into a big necklace for myself. I am happy to wear jet reused from broken antique jewellery, but I'd be hesitant to go out in an original which had survived the past 150 years intact, even if I could afford one. Jet is fairly robust, but it is more vulnerable to damage than metal jewellery, and I'd hate to ruin such a beautiful, irreplaceable bit of history.

Pictured below is my collection of black jewellery. The brooch which is definitely jet is the one shown alone, with the cross and Lily of the Valley carving. The rest of the collection is perhaps mostly jet and some Vulcanite which has avoided fading from sun exposure. The brooch with the Greek key pattern and gold hexagram includes some black glass or onyx. As I said before, it's sometimes very difficult to identify jet from other materials for certain.