In with the Jet Set

Donna Air wearing a ‘spider’ dress by Scott Henshall and W. Hamond
Donna Air wearing a ‘spider’ dress by Scott
Henshall and W. Hamond

From the red carpets of Hollywood to the high streets of Newcastle, jet is enjoying a renaissance.
Gwyneth Paltrow wore a carved jet brooch in the film Possession and Geordie TV presenter Donna Air recently sported a Whitby jet and diamond dress. The intricate spider and cobweb design came from Scott
Henshall and was created by Whitby jet specialists W. Hamond. Red carpet regular and socialite, Hofit Golan, has also been seen in jet and diamond jewellery.

Matthew Hatch, a jet carver from Whitby jet specialist W. Hamond, has watched interest in jet rise over the past decade. He said: “Antique jet – or jet pieces carved in the Victorian period – are usually more elaborate than today’s designs. They are very collectable and today’s buyers know much about the history of jet than ever before. Older pieces also stand alone, contemporary pieces often combine jet with silver, gold, diamonds and other precious stones.”

Whitby Puzzle

While Whitby jet is among the densest of types of jet it is surprisingly light in weight. The gemstone is actually the fossilized remains of the Araucaria tree – better known as the Monkey Puzzle – which existed more than 180 million years ago and grew in vast forests along the North Yorkshire coastline during the
Jurassic Period.

It has never been permitted to mine for the gem, though it was accepted practice, in the Victorian era, to dig deep into the cliff faces to extract it. Once the section of cliff had been exhausted of the gemstone,
the jet workers would ensure their excavations were re-filled. In higher and more inaccessible areas of the cliff face, young men were lowered on ropes to carry out this work, a task made all the more dangerous by
the fact that the cliffs are mostly shale and therefore very unstable.

Jet is found in many parts of the world but Whitby’s has long been regarded as the finest quality. With a history dating back to the Stone Age, Whitby jet has been used to make items of jewellery and body adornments for thousands of years, but it is best known for its years of flourishing success during the Victorian era.

Black Star

An antique Whitby jet brooch using plated and woven hair as its centrepiece surrounded by jet spheres, W. Hamond, £535
An antique Whitby jet brooch using plated and
woven hair as its centrepiece surrounded by jet
spheres, W. Hamond, £535

It was one of the most used decorative materials of Victorian jewellers and, by the middle of the 19th century when black started to dominate fashion, it was worn not just as jewellery but sewn into dresses and other fashion accessories. Jet objects were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, drawing attention from overseas visitors and leading to orders for specially commissioned pieces from the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France. With the growth of rail travel and interest in ‘holidaying’ on the coast,
Whitby became a popular seaside haunt for the Victorians. The Victorians liked to collect souvenirs of their holidays and from Whitby the treasure had to be a piece of jet, the most popular item being a brooch, sometimes carved with a name or love message.

When Prince Albert died in 1861 Queen Victoria entered into ‘severe mourning’ and would allow only jet black jewellery to be worn at court. The Victorians followed this fashion and soon jet jewellery became the height of fashion where it remained for some 40 years. The industry in Whitby boomed – from just two shops in 1832 to 200 by 1872.

Spotting a Fake

Unpolished jet has a ‘dead’ black tone, which in Victorian times better represented the depth of mourning more than other minerals. It was the preferred choice over lesser-quality jet. There are, of course, cheaper alternatives, such as black enamel, vulcanite (a hardened rubber,) and bog oak, which is more of a brown colour.

Fine jet ornaments also include long strings of beads in a variety of designs, combs and costume
jewellery often made of French jet. French jet or black glass is heavier, cold to the touch and easily distinguished from other forms of jet. Other materials used include black onyx and black enamel.

Even before the death of Victoria in 1901, tastes had begun to change. When she celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, Victoria chose to relax her strict mourning and a new era started to emerge embracing brighter and more colourful styles.

Prices for good Whitby jet pieces range from less than £300 for small, carved brooches up to several thousands for an elaborate necklace with a cameo miniature painting or highly-detailed carved bracelet.

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