GET READY FOR THE JET SET!!
Over the years, the small seaside town of Whitby, North Yorkshire, England has been known for many things. The 19th century novelist, Bram Stoker, wrote his book Dracula during his holiday there. Another 19th century author, Lewis Carroll, stayed in Whitby while writing the immortal Alice in Wonderland. Famous explorer Captain Cook was apprenticed in Whitby and set sail on his ship Endeavour from the town’s port. And, Whitby’s iconic 7th century Abbey, which stands high on the cliffs overlooking the town, was destroyed by King Henry VIII during his fall out with Rome and Catholicism. But, there is an even more exciting side to Whitby. It is also the home of a rare and luxurious black gem, known as Whitby Jet. And, this is where the expression jet-black comes from.
By Rebecca Tucker
By Rebecca Tucker
Jet is a gemstone that can be found in a number of locations worldwide, mainly Spain, Turkey, Russia, and even parts of North America. Yet, it is the intensely black color and mirror-like shine of Whitby Jet that has made it the favored material for hundreds and even thousands of years. To understand more about this remarkable black gem, let’s take a look at England’s North Yorkshire region. Picture a dramatic coastline, made up of prehistoric cliffs towering up to 400 feet high and the North Sea crashing down on the shale-like rocks below. On a clear day, you can trace the coastline for many miles, with little pockets of houses and small villages dotted along its length. Whitby is a busy little fishing town nestled right in the middle of this Jurassic coastline.
Jet itself can be found around around a ten-mile radius of Whitby, and although it was extensively mined throughout the Victorian era, its sourcing is now strictly limited to only what local people can collect from the beaches after the material has naturally fallen from the cliffs. Because of its value and rarity, searching for jet has become the pastime of many a local lad or off-duty fisherman who will walk along the beaches with a keen eye, looking for a glint of black on the sand.
A Bit of History
This rare organic gemstone—yes, Jet is organic—is the fossilized wood of the ancient Araucaria tree, also known as the monkey-puzzle tree that can now be seen as an ornamental flora in gardens across the length and breadth of Britain.
Throughout the Jurassic period, large forests of the Araucaria tree covered the northeast coast of England. After a tree died and fell, it often became driftwood and was washed out to sea. Sinking to the bottom of the ocean, it was then covered with a mixture of sediment, decaying organisms, and detritus. The pressure and lack of oxygen, coupled with 180 million years, fossilized the wood into hard, black Jet.
As a gemstone, the feel of Whitby Jet is starkly different from what you might expect. One would be forgiven for thinking it was a hard, heavy, cold material, similar perhaps to onyx. But if you hold a piece of Jet in your hand and you will find it to be incredibly lightweight and warm to the touch. Bark lines and impressions of fossils can often be seen on the rough material. And, after it is cut and polished, its amazing mirror shine becomes apparent.
Found on the beaches, Jet has been used to make jewelry and body adornments for thousands of years. It is thought to be one of the earliest gemstones known to man, often used as a talisman to ward off evil. Pieces of worked Jet date back even to the Stone Age.
Actual mining of the cliffs around Whitby began as early as 1500 BC. During the Roman era of occupation in the 3rd century, the black gemstone was highly prized for making dagger handles, carvings, hairpins, an assortment of jewelry and other objects. The Romans also appreciated it for its incredible shine for use as mirrors. The monks of the medieval Whitby Abbey carved rosaries and other religious symbols from Jet.
In the 19th century, Whitby Jet reached its height of popularity, and it was a culmination of factors that led to the success of the industry at this time. These included the introduction of the lathe in 1800 and the growing popularity of Whitby as a tourist destination.
With new rail links to the town, it became a popular seaside holiday destination for early Victorians for whom a souvenir piece of Jet was a must.
As time went on, fashions changed and clothing became heavier and more voluminous, particularly with the crinolines, and these fuller designs required larger and more eye-catching jewelry to match. Whitby Jet’s lightweight characteristics made it the perfect choice for large accessories as even the largest pieces could be worn in comfort. Chains, beads, and carvings became fashionable embellishments.
In 1851, Whitby Jet was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London and soon became coveted by a number of high profile royals including the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France. But Whitby Jet’s most prolific patron was to become Queen Victoria.
When her beloved Albert died in 1861, Victoria took to wearing Jet jewelry in remembrance of him. It soon became the custom to accessorize mourning fashion with jewelry made from the black gemstone. During this period, the only jewelry acceptable at court was, quite understandably, Whitby Jet.
As Queen Victoria’s reign came to an end, however, so did the fashion for Jet jewelry, and it fell into near oblivion. For most of the 20th century Whitby Jet was all but forgotten.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a new appreciation for this rare, organic material emerged. Its meaningful heritage began drawing new recognition and a renewed look from jewelry lovers around the globe.
For collectors looking for unusual or historical pieces, antique Whitby Jet is becoming increasingly desirable. Its rarity and importance in England’s social history as well as its place in the history of jewelry have led to a resurgence in demand for this organic gem, and Victorian pieces can range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars. The television series Downton Abbey has also had an impact on the rebounding popularity of the gem, as some of its key characters wear beautiful sets of Jet jewelry.
Modern Jet jewelry is now available at prices that accommodate all budgets, starting with simple sterling silver and Jet stud earrings, to luxurious Jet and diamond pieces set in 18K gold or platinum. Special one-of-a-kind pieces can even cost thousands of dollars.
As well as crafting Whitby Jet in affordable, sterling silver jewelry, W. Hamond is today focused on creating high-end jewelry, incorporating diamonds and in 18K gold and platinum. Among W. Hamond’s notable Whitby Jet designs are a pendant made for Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her 80th birthday. On a more whimsical note, a Jet set was made for actress Donna Air to wear for the premier of The Amazing Spiderman in 2012.
While perhaps not as spectacular as the spider adornment for Donna Air, modern designs of Whitby Jet are definitely more wearable. Now, appealing more than ever to an international audience, these pieces are not only beautiful, but they also raise the profile of this remarkable British gemstone, whose history has royal connections going back millennia.
A rare material from a very small part of the world, Jet’s unusual qualities set it apart from all other gems. Tactile and very light in weight, it is warm to the touch and the only organic gemstone that is intensely “jet-black” in color. No wonder that it is fast becoming the new favorite of the Jet Set!
Rebecca Tucker is a jeweler and carver of Jet jewelry at W. Hamond in Whitby. All photos courtesy of W. Hamond unless otherwise specified.