The origins of jet’s role in the development of history and culture can be traced as far back as man’s use of jewellery and body adornments.
When rubbed against material, jet gives off a static electric charge and these electrical properties were believed to enrich it with magical powers, as such jet would frequently be worn as a powerful talisman by ancient people who would also fashion the gem into beads and wear them alongside other organic materials, like amber, chalk, even bones and teeth.
Bronze Age Jet
Throughout the Bronze Age there was no large-scale jet production, but rather a small ornament and jewellery trade taken up by individual craftsmen working either alone or in small numbers. The items being crafted were of small volume but sufficient enough for today’s archaeologists to occasionally find in graves, hillocks, or mounds of earth intended as repositories for the dead. There are no indications to suggest there has ever been any large-scale workshops dating back to the Bronze Age, for this, there would need to be evidence of partly carved items of jet and roughly cut blanks in large numbers, like the examples found in some of the later Roman workshops.
It is known that jet from the North Yorkshire coast did travel quite extensively around Britain. The style and manner in which Bronze Age jet was worked followed designs which were fashionable during this period. Often items of jet jewellery found in various spread-out locations look so remarkably similar that it points to being the work of one or a small number of craftsman producing quantities of their signature design. Rows of beads, interspersed with flat spacer plates were very popular and would have been worn by people of quite high rank and importance within a community, as jet was a highly prized material at that time.
The style in which jet jewellery was crafted, changed dramatically during the Roman era. Generally, simple beads, shapes and forms were replaced by, sometimes very intricate carvings. Gorgons and other mythical creatures were a popular theme. Medusa’s head was often carved in reliefs on jet pendants, the wearer believing that it would draw and hold the powers of evil, thus keeping it from the wearer themselves. Hair pins, finger rings, bracelets and armbands were all manufactured on a vast scale, and any Roman lady of nobility would have dazzled in the latest trend for black, jet jewellery.
The majority of jet used by the ancient Roman’s was obtained from Lycia (modern Turkey), however, there is evidence of Whitby jet being worked in the city of York (Eboracum) as early as the 2nd century AD, although its popularity greatly increased into the 3rd century and throughout the 4th. There is also known to be more than one jet workshop operating from this period and samples of rough jet found elsewhere (for example, South Shields Roman Fort, Tyne & Wear) tell us that York was not the only centre of manufacture for jet.
As well as being decorative, jet was also thought to remedy certain afflictions and to carry with it magical powers, which was detailed in an account given by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD.
The first written reference for British jet was made by Gaius Julius Solinus around the third century AD, curiously neither he or Pliny make any suggestion that jet might be made into jewellery, instead Gaius writes that “It is found here in great abundance and of very fine quality.” He then continues to describe it as “black and like a jewel; as to its nature, it burns in water and is extinguished in oil; as to its power, when made warm by rubbing, it attracts things brought near to it, as amber does.”
In the 7th century AD Christianity arrived in Yorkshire and the use of jet was pretty much reserved for religious accessories, particularly rosary beads, crosses, small statues of saints, and amulets to ward off evil. Between 867 and 1068AD York (Jorvic) became one of the most important trading centres in Western Europe and Whitby Jet was once again produced in reasonable quantities.
The use of jet by the Vikings was not limited to Yorkshire. Numerous examples of jet jewellery and small carvings have been discovered in the graves of both men and women wherever the Vikings settled, from North Scotland to Scandinavia; rings, beads and small carved animals, probably used as amulets, were treasured possessions.
Jet from the Middle Ages
It was in the Middle Ages that jet’s association with magical powers became not just a belief but a fact. To the Medieval mind, Whitby was already somewhat of a place to marvel at, with an abundance of ammonite fossils, which were believed to be snakes petrified by St. Hilda. Belemnite fossils were also used as charms against cattle disease, and shale pebbles with natural holes in them known as ‘witchstones’ were hung in stables to prevent witches riding on horses at night. As such, jet was widely made into amulets and talismans designed to be worn or carried on the person.
The belief that jet contained magical properties and could act as a potent talisman was widely recognised from the very beginnings of jet working right through until the 19th century.
Jet in the Early Modern Period
The regard with which Royalty and aristocracy held jet during the early modern period was akin to that of pearls and diamonds. It was worn with class and elegance by noblewomen keen to portray a pious and modest image at a time of conflicting religious views and political unrest throughout 16th century England.
Whitby’s famous Benedictine Abbey built in 657AD was ruined and robbed of its wealth and contents by Henry VIII in 1540; all part of his ambition to break from Rome, overthrow Catholicism and become supreme head of the Church of England. And yet despite this stark warning in the very heart of Whitby, jet continued to be made into rosary beads and items of a Catholic nature, as well as more traditional jewellery styles.
Well known historical figures who wore jet around this time are Mary Queen of Scots and the Lady Jane Grey, famously known as the ‘Nine-day Queen.’ She was documented as wearing jet beads around her neck during her trial, after her right to reign was challenged by Mary I. It was a courtly yet sombre image she was trying to present, in view of the seriousness of her situation. Unfortunately, Jane’s life ended on the block at 16 years old. A political victim of the tumultuous Tudor dynasty.
The Whitby Jet industry really came into its own during the Victorian era, spurred on by a series of events which would catapult it into one of histories most successful jewellery trends.
The seaside town of Whitby became a popular destination for Victorian tourists during the mid to late nineteenth century and with the introduction of the lathe into jet manufacturing, both jewellery and souvenirs were made and sold in ever increasing quantities.
In 1851 Whitby jet jewellery was entered into the Great Exhibition and received worldwide acclaim, orders then started coming in from the continent and around the globe.
But the popularity of jet reached its peak after the sudden death of Prince Albert in 1861, after which Queen Victoria, who was only 42 at the time, entered into a period of sustained mourning and wore black for the rest of her life, accompanied by Whitby Jet jewellery, which became her gemstone of choice to represent her feeling of loss.
Victorian society followed suit and jet became the must have accessory of the nineteenth century, both for periods of mourning and as a popular fashion trend
As the saying goes; the best is yet to come! After the success of the Victorian era, Whitby jet fell dramatically out of fashion and the industry depleted into almost non-existence, the only jet shop that continues to make and sell jet jewellery from the Victorian era is W. Hamond which was established in 1860 and still proudly maintains its place as one of Whitby’s finest proprietors of Whitby jet jewellery.
As anyone who has visited Whitby can testify, the cobbled path of Church Street and the surrounding town is a hive of Whitby Jet manufacturing, often with formulaic and predictable jewellery designs. With an established reputation to uphold and new chapters to be written in the story of Whitby Jet, it is our mission at W Hamond to continue to elevate this iconic British gemstone – and never more so than in our 160th birthday celebrations. Whether it’s Whitby Jet encrusted with diamonds or set with a single stone, of unique form or of a design incorporating the finest pearls or Baltic amber, our design and workshop craftsmen and women continue to push the boundaries to provide the quality of manufacturing Whitby Jet deserves.
The transformation of Whitby Jet and its ability to fit into any century, decade or generation cannot be underestimated. As custodians of W Hamond we continue to reach out to both those who already have a love of Jet and those being introduced to Whitby’s special gemstone for the first time.