Famous Gems; English Whitby Jet
Posted on September 06 2019
Whitby Jet jewellery was once immensely fashionable, recognised and worn by women the world over. This English Jet, which holds the best polish of any in the world can be found along a two mile stretch of cliff at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. An organic gem formed as Lignite (a precursor to Coal) it is a fossilised wood formed under great pressure 182 million years ago from the Arucaria, an ancient Jurassic tree similar to the Monkey Puzzle Tree. Of unique density and hardness it is also extremely light and so could be formed to quite large pieces of jewellery which were still light to wear and complemented the voluminous dresses worn in the Victorian era.
In large part it was after Prince Albert died in 1861 and Queen Victoria took to wearing Whitby Jet that it became associated with Mourning in it's most deepest most poignant phase and really took off in popularity. A busy industry grew in the town which at it's peak employed around 1000 people in workshops cutting, carving and polishing and retailing jewellery often decorated with symbolic motifs of meaningful flowers, buckles for binding love, snakes for eternity etc.
Whitby Jet is hard but brittle and so many surviving pieces of jewellery are chipped and otherwise broken meaning that even though many thousands of beautifully hand carved jewels may have been fashioned during the Victorian era, complete items in good condition are pretty rare nowadays and very collectable. Whitby Jet lies close to our hearts as during our early jewellery careers we worked together on Whitby Jet jewellery specifically and became expert at repairing these old pieces, shaping and polishing the Jet to replace lost sections of chain etc.
By the 1890's much of the large deposits of Jet had been found and the industry had begun to go into decline as a new era of lighter sensibilities dawned and fashion changed. Whitby is a charming seaside town to visit and there are still workshops in existence alongside a museum telling the Whitby Jet story. You might even be lucky enough to find a piece of Jet on the beach washed out of the cliffs.
If you'd like to learn more about Whitby Jet and the industry that grew up around around it there is a fabulous book written by Helen Muller and published by Shire Books.