Whitby Jet: What, Why and When?

With Halloween knocking on our door and Whitby goth events calling our name, many of our minds turn to jet, indulgent dark jewellery and the beauty of mourning wear. But, to appreciate jet, its place in fashion, mourning and gem appreciation, we really need to delve into its inky history.

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Image credit: The Antique Jewellery Company

‘Black, forsooth, coal-black as jet…’

Henry VI, Part 2 · ACT II · SCENE I

 

Jet is my true love and the true bane of my bank account.

My main interest in jet is its place in Victorian mourning wear. Black clothes required black jewellery; if you wanted the best, you got jet. However, there is much more to the black gemstone than a few decades of miserable Victorians.

 

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Bronze Age Jet Spacer Necklace. Found in Inchmarnock, Argyll and Bute. Photo: Alison Sheridan

 

Jet was one of the first gemstones to ever have been discovered by man, with examples of jet jewellery dated as far back as the bronze age.

Like gemstones through the centuries, jet was similarly thought to possess a wide range of bizarre properties. Pliny recorded in the first century AD that when burned, jet fumes would deter snakes and cure madness. It was said to be used as an indicator for epilepsy and also provide an accurate test for virginity. I don’t especially want to know how.

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Roman Jet Amulet. Image: Helios Gallery

Later down the line, the Romans used a source of jet in Turkey before discovering British jet deposits in the 3rd and 4thcentury. There are multiple examples of Roman jet jewellery in museums around the UK – from bracelet shards to necklaces and beads, the craftsmanship is undeniable. I have been fortunate enough to hold a roman bead alongside a 19thcentury equivalent and the differences are few and far between. There are also thousands of examples of jet amulets being used in rudimentary witchcraft and magic, primarily in protection. Also, as with all ancient civilisations, there’s a hefty collection of jet phalluses in museums around the country.

In more child-friendly news, and still in the north of England, there are even examples of Viking jet workshops in York, right by the modern train station!

Throughout the medieval period the snappiest jet-dressers were everyone’s favourite fashion icons, priests. This was predominantly because jet was reserved for ecclesiastical ornamentation.

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Victorian Necklace. Image: 1stdibs.com

However, most of our contemporary knowledge of British (Whitby) jet is in the 19thcentury, namely the Victorian era. Following the death of George 4thin 1830, the Lord Chamberlain’s office issued a decree that the “ornament will be jet”, and northern jet workshops began their climb into mainstream popularity. And when Victoria’s grief began, the town became dominated by jet workshops. And why jet? It was readily available in the UK and is blacker than pitch, hence where we get our expression ‘Jet Black’.

However, within just a few years, Jet went from the height of Victorian fashion -both in mourning and regular wear- to a virtually dead industry.

But what exactly is jet?

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Image: W Hamond

Whitby jet is found within the series of black laminated shales which form part of the North Yorkshire coast. Jet is technically a gemstone, but not as we know it; it is a fossilised wood which has been compressed by sediment since the Jurassic Period, which is around 180 million years ago. So, let’s just take a minute to enjoy the mental image of some very well-accessorised dinosaurs.

The general consensus is that some Jet originated as parts of the Araucaria, or Monkey Puzzle tree which once grew in great swathes across the north east coast. This is a fact frequently up for debate between jet professionals – jet could well be from a variety of fossilised woods, but only time and more research will tell.

When the original wood died, it washed out to sea, sank and was gradually covered with layers of sediment and dead organisms. The immense pressure and lack of oxygen resulted in the compression and fossilisation of the wood, thus creating jet. This process also causes Jet to have a plastic-like feel to it.

‘Hard Whitby Jet’, once carved, is made to last for thousands of years. Unless you’re a clumsy sod, obviously. And there are lots of examples of chipped jet today, not least in my own collection.

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In the 19thcentury, jet was mined directly from the cliff face, where tunnels were made with shovels and picks. As large as the industry was, jet mining was a rather disorganised affair with teams of miners operating in pairs, who worked the cliffs as a part time job.

Due to coastal erosion and the perils of collapsing cliff tunnels, all new examples of jet must be beachcombed. However, there are plenty of low-res YouTube videos of intrepid explorers entering abandoned jet mines if you want to ensure nightmares for the next fortnight.

As tempting as it may be to take a shovel to the beach, it is illegal to dig jet directly from the cliffs, and if you try to hack it out to sell, modern (moral!) jewellers will know! Also, if that cliff falls on you, death by beachcombing isn’t the coolest way to go.

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Image: David Duggleby

But why did jet enjoy such a boom in the Victorian era? Jet has always had a small appeal – after all, well-crafted jewellery will always have an audience. Not to mention its centuries-long use in mystical practise. However, after the expansion of the railways in the 1830s and 40s, seaside holidays became far more accessible to the Victorian family. Similarly, Victorians were buying into the idea of an annual holiday, family gatherings at the seaside and ‘authentic’ mementos.  One thing led to another, and combined with the booming Victorian interest in souvenirs, the jet industry exploded.

First things first, Jet was never cheap. Not now, not then. It is a precious gem.

In mourning, during the 19thcentury, when a woman is denied the enjoyment of fashions and physical aesthetics, jet almost bent the rules. Jet can be dull or highly polished when it glistens and draws the eye. It’s the ultimate in indulgent decorative grief.

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Selection of chokers and brooches in the W Hamond museum

 

The most prized of all jet designs, both then and now to contemporary collectors, were heavy chains. These are often referred to as being carved from a single piece of jet with no joins or seams. As impressive as this feat would be, these chain links are, in fact made in two halves, and pinned as to appear whole.  Fine examples of these are impossibly expensive today and the few examples I’ve seen in the UK have been locked away in a Whitby museum or with a six-figure price tag.

While mourning dress was a strictly governed process, with thorough guides as to what jewellery or clothing was appropriate for the time of the grieving period, due to generalised high mortality rates, especially infant mortality, many women simply chose to wear black for the rest of their lives, especially the elderly. This didn’t mean that these women had given up on their appearances, and many were frequently seen wearing elaborate jet jewellery to complement their outfits.

Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.Daughter of Queen Victoria (Died Dec 1939)
Princess Louise

It is very much stating the obvious, but fashions were deeply entrenched in the whims and choices of the royal family, and jet was no different. Queen Victoria’s love for jet was well known, but also her younger, more fashionable daughters followed suit and were pictured wearing huge suites of jet in official portraits.

We don’t associate the Victorian era with celebrity culture, but it was there in its infancy.

Adelina Patti was a French-Italian opera singer. She was also a business woman, a skilled billiard player and a keen earner who trained a parrot to yell ‘cash!’ at any promoter entering the room.

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Adelina Patti

She hugely popularised the wearing of tear drop shaped jet earrings – when she was pictured wearing them, they dominated public demand. In her promotional pictures she appeared in whole sets of jet beads, earrings and brooches, to such wild extents that she must have rattled while she walked.

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By 1860, the flowery delicate jewellery of the Georgian and early 19thcentury was severely out of fashion. Bolder, chunkier styles popularised through Britain’s interest in Egyptology were soon in vogue. It was also the time when Queen Victoria suffered her biggest loss.

After her mother’s death in March of 1861, Victoria went out and bought all the appropriate mourning jewels for a woman of her station; pins brooches etc. However, it was her husband, Albert’s death in November of the same year that plunged her into deep mourning and set the tone for grief and decoration for the rest of the century.

But even in her grief, Victoria was a fervent patron of British industry, and subsequently exclusively wore Whitby Jet.

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In the 1870s, a group of Italian craftsmen visited Whitby and instructed workers in the art of the cameo relief. Subsequently, there’s a period in jet history where cameos absolutely drown the market. Of course, with varying degrees of success.

Sets of earrings were always popular. However, upon closer inspection, even the finest examples of these earrings don’t seem exactly identical. While this is subject to craftsmen’s choice and skill, mis-matched patterns were commonplace in all areas of the industry, with jet workers famously saying – ‘any two of anything make a pair’.

Also, names and sentiments were very popular ready-made pieces. Named bar brooches were sold in a way not dissimilar to novelty pens at the seaside now. If they have the name of you, or a loved one, dead or alive, you’d feel compelled to buy it.

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Via the W Hamond museum of Jet

 

Painted miniatures also had an 1870s revival where idealised portraits of young sitters were imported from Austria to Whitby where they were then set into a variety of objects, from necklaces to trinket boxes. While many later collectors deemed them rather chintzy, they were an incredibly popular style with each miniature being hand painted with great skill.

The most popular of these was the ‘Tyrolean boy’, which can’t help but remind me of the 1970s interest in the crying boy portrait.

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Both popular, both alarming, both almost certainly haunted.

 

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Isaac Greenbury was arguably Whitby’s most successful jet worker, owning several workshops in the town alongside other regional boutiques, the finest of which was ‘The Pantheon’ in Harrogate.

A nice, subtle and understated shop front, you see.

This may seem obnoxious, but Isaac was frequently labelled as ‘the most skilful of them all’ by jet workers and aristocracy alike.

After jet was exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Whitby gem received international attention and in 1854, Isaac received a substantial order from both the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France. These orders consisted of a chain measuring 4 foot 6 inches long and two solid jet bracelets.

Greenbury also made non-wearables such as jet caskets for a Philadelphia exhibition and even clock cases for wealthy patrons. While Whitby jet was a huge national industry, it must be considered that a large proportion of this wealth came through international commissions and the export industry. Hence why pieces of Whitby jet jewellery are found extensively throughout America and western Europe.

 

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But not everyone had the funds to build their own Pantheon. For every Isaac Greenbury, there was a nameless elderly stallholder, setting up his table of wares around Whitby, hoping to sell his goods to tourists and passing fashionistas.

An interesting point of note is that, although Whitby jet was a cottage industry, it was not uncommon for several craftsmen to work on a set or piece at once. Every craftsman developed and contributed their own specific skills to the industry. One may specialise in flowers, cameos, hands or be a bracelet specialist. The skill level required for high quality jet work was so high, there was no such thing as general craftsmanship. A woman’s role was predominantly in the shop, or working on smaller, simple tasks such as beads and threading.

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Courtesy of the Ebor Jet Works

However, in order to make these elaborate pieces, the tools used were unimaginably simple. Families often passed down skills from father to son and the tools followed suit. Chisel handles were often little more than a wooden peg with an umbrella spoke as a drill bit.

Like many practical positions, one became a jet worker through an apprenticeship. With so many young men unable to read and write, some of the more popular text-related pieces, suffered an unpleasant mishap or two in their construction.

 

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‘When Whitby Abby Had A…TOWERONIT’ and ‘Navis’. Found at the W Hamond museum

 

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The W Hammond Jet shop, which has been in business in one way or another since 1860 has a wonderful example of immaculate chain work in this jet suite, which consists of a jet chain with three hanging cameos, brooch, pair of bracelets, earrings and cufflinks. All in a beautifully restored velvet case. This was originally made for an exhibition to show the phenomenal craftsmanship of Whitby jet workers. Its available to see today in their jet museum and shop, but I wouldn’t pop in an offer unless you’re planning on winning the lottery any time soon!

 

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Bog Oak Bracelet

For those whose pockets couldn’t stretch to jet, there were more than enough alternatives to go around. Bog Oak, Vulcanite, Gutta Percha and French Jet were some of the more popular simulants.

French Jet, unsurprisingly, was a cheap French substitute for Jet. It is a glass, rather than a gemstone, so was ideal for use in delicate beadwork and trimmings. If someone states that an item of clothing is ‘trimmed with jet,’ it will commonly be a black glass. It is only the deep reddish tint and coldness to the touch that sets it apart from its Jet counterparts. But, it can badly chip when dropped, so nothing is clumsy-proof.

Bog Oak is, unsurprisingly, a fossilised wood, predominantly found in Ireland. Most authentic bog oak pieces date from the very small window of 1850-55. While more popular in Irish memorial and religious work, most pieces created after 1855 were solely for the tourist market. Many bog oak pieces seen in collections depict castles and religious content. While many bog oak brooches are sold as depicting ‘Whitby Abbey’ or a specific place, it is more likely that they are generalised depictions of Irish landscapes.

Vulcanite was invented in 1846 by Goodyear – the tyre people – and is much like our modern plastics. After prolonged exposure to light, Vulcanite pieces fade to a reddish brown, which cannot be undone. This proves to be a very easy visual indicator of content when vulcanite and jet are placed side by side.

Gutta Percha is a very similar product, being a natural rubber and having a plastic-like finish. Both of these were widely used for more inexpensive jewellery as it can be used in moulds, rather than needing carving like jet.

And of course, enamel. Enamel has been used in mourning jewellery for centuries, particularly in brooches. Enamel is a glassy hard-wearing material and its enduring use in jewellery today speaks for its qualities.

(Not to mention pressed horn, lava, shale, Vauxhall glass etc…)

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Jet and Simulants on display at a W Hamond course

I don’t mean to give these alternatives a bad rep– there are so many beautiful and varied pieces made from these materials. It might not be Gucci, but these simulants are still a few steps above Topshop, and auction prices still reflect this.

But what of Whitby?

As for the fate of Whitby, when jet was at its peak, the Whitby industry alone was worth over a million pounds by today’s standards. Yet by the end of the 1870s, jet had begun its down spiral due to cheap imports. Even Victoria’s support couldn’t sustain the industry any longer.

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Jet crosses at the Ebor Jet Works

The jet boom only really lasted around 20 years – while black jewellery remained popular, any efforts to restrict the use of these jet imitations was unsuccessful and the authenticity of jet purchases became wildly unregulated. Telling jet and its likenesses apart has always been tricky, so even in the 19thcentury, there were well-to-do women wearing vulcanite brooches, fully believing they were the authentic jet they paid for.

When bog oak, pressed horn and vulcanite came into the fray, it was akin to Primark entering the game. From 200 workshops at its peak, by 1921 there were only 40 jet workers in the whole of Whitby and by 1958 the last Victorian jet worker with first-hand knowledge of the industry had died.

Today, appreciation of the gem is back on the rise. Whitby has many workshops, most independent or family owned, who are using jet in stunning contemporary and antique design alike. And, while there are a great many male jewellers and business owners, in terms of emerging designers and business, women are closing the gap.

Should you visit Whitby today, I urge you to support these talented craftspeople. In buying a pendant, earrings or even an elaborately carved spoon, you are not only supporting a centuries-long industry, but you are supporting the future of jet, the identity of Whitby and…hey, sometimes it’s just nice to treat yourself.

 

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Image: Ebor Jet Works

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