W Hamond and our work with Whitby Jet is often the inspiration for a great story or article in papers, magazines and online. We love explaining the history, heritage and future of Whitby Jet and the content below is copied directly from a fabulous 4-page article that appeared in Living North Yorkshire Edition, (Issue 84)
We hope you enjoy the read.
It’s an impressive 160 years since W. Hamond - The Original Whitby Jet Shop – opened their doors. As they announce a new collaboration with jewellery brand Fabergé, we catch up with Rebecca Tucker, workshop manager at W. Hamond and curator at The Museum of Whitby Jet, to discover more about this unique gemstone’s history, its place in the royal jewellery collection, and why what was a simple souvenir is coming back into fashion.
From its home on Church Street, at the bottom of Whitby’s famous 199 steps, W Hamond welcomes visitors from across the world to the shop where skilled craftsmen select the finest-quality Whitby Jet, which washes up on the North Yorkshire coastline, and transform it into luxurious designs.
Whitby Jet is one of the very few natural organic gemstones in the world, making its properties and appearance completely unique. It is formed from compressed wood from more than 186 million years ago, and the term ‘jet black’ derives from the striking black colour of the Whitby Jet stone which can be found on our beloved Yorkshire beaches.
To celebrate the incredible milestone of 160 years of trading, W. Hamond have announced an exciting collection in collaboration with Fabergé. ‘We had planned a whole host of events for the anniversary, but sadly 2020 turned into the year that never was, and like so many others, our plans had to change,’ Rebecca explains. ‘However, there was one big event that wasn’t affected, and that was our special collaboration with Fabergé.
‘Originally, Fabergé was the official jeweller to Russia’s Imperial Court – a far cry from the North Yorkshire Coast – but when we first spoke to their designers and craftsmen they were fascinated by the Whitby Jet gemstone: its beauty, intensity of colour and geological scarcity. This was a gemstone they had never used before, so they were very keen to collaborate with us. Our designers worked very closely with theirs to produce something which paid homage to the town, creating a tiny 18ct gold replica of Whitby Abbey which would sit on a delicately crafted base of Whitby Jet, all encased within a golden egg decorated with Fabergé’s trademark Guilloché enamel in W. Hamond’s famous royal green colour.’
W. Hamond and Fabergé may appear as businesses that are worlds apart from each other, but when you dig just a little below the surface, similarities can be found – including their remarkable links to royalty. ‘Whilst Fabergé were creating amazing pieces for the Russian royal family, W. Hamond too was catering for a new wave of fashion created by Queen Victoria.’ Rebecca explains. ‘Whitby Jet was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and soon became highly coveted by European royalty. But it was Queen Victoria who became its most significant patron as she wore Jet in mourning when her husband Prince Albert died in 1861 – the year after W. Hamond opened.
Everyone who was anyone was suddenly wearing Whitby Jet jewellery, including Britain’s royal family, the whole of the royal court (Queen Victoria would allow no other jewellery) and other European courts as well, and these were the clientele that W.Hamond were designing for.’ It seems that the royal approval certainly hasn’t faded away overtime. Rebecca revealed that for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday, W. Hamond made her a pendant set with the two native gemstones of Great Britain – on one side was the Blue John, a type of Fluorite from Derbyshire, and on the other side was Whitby Jet. ‘I’d like to think she wears it now and then – even if its just to walk the corgis in the garden,’ Rebecca laughs.
Jet’s fascinating history can be discovered in its entirety in The Museum of Whitby Jet, which was developed by W. Hamond to give tourists and fans of the gemstone an insight into into past. ‘The idea of a museum was something we’d dreamt about for a long time and, in a way, it had to happen at some point because as well as the antique collections which we have for sale in the boutique, there was also an enormous collection of historically-important pieces which were carefully stored away in drawers and cupboards behind the scenes which the public were not able to enjoy,’ Rebecca explains. ‘There was also nowhere effectively explaining the history, geology and legacy of the Whitby Jet gemstone, and we felt the need to expand on a more educational level.’
In 2015, W. Hamond found the perfect building to do this – an old Wesleyan chapel in the heart of Whitby’s old town and just down the road from their flagship store. It took three years to restore the building to its former glory and it has been displaying Jet ever since. Of course, throughout lockdown the museum had to shut, meaning the usual school visits came to a halt along with the lectures and events, but to keep some level of normality, the team went digital for a while, using their social media platforms to deliver short information videos.
While it’s clear that Whitby Jet is as popular now as it was 160 years ago, it has gone through ups and downs in popularity. In 1873 more than 1,400 men were employed in the industry, compared with just five in 1946. For most of the twentieth century, Jet was considered old fashioned and morbid, and was mostly being sold to tourists as souvenirs and costume jewellery.
’It is a wonder that W. Hamond was able to survive, but as the decades changed so did people’s opinion of the gemstone,’ Rebecca says. ‘A new appreciation for British-made and locally-sourced items has helped to spur on a new revival for the material.
‘I think the more Whitby Jet is regarded as the rare and important gemstone that it is, as opposed to being treated as a souvenir, the more it will be revered and cherished for generations to come. It is very easy for organic gemstones to be somehow viewed with less importance, but the reality is that this humble Yorkshire material is infinitely rarer than the diamond and is important both culturally, historically and geologically.
For those reasons, I have every faith that in another 160 years to come people people will still be eagerly purchasing their Whitby Jet jewellery over the Victorian counters of W. Hamond.’ Rebecca loves working with the gemstone and enjoys taking on unique commissions for customers – particularly those with lots of carving. ‘That’s where I can really stretch my lapidary abilities and challenge myself. Carving Jet is a real treat for me because the fashion for Jet today is for smooth, polished cabochons. The sad thing is, we don’t always have the luxury of time to spend hours and hours on a single carving,’ she says. Interestingly, Rebecca revealed that Jet was previously used as a test for virginity. From Roman times right up until the late Medieval period, a mixture of ground Jet and water was taken as a drink, and its resulting effect was considered an accurate test for a female’s celibacy.
In its slightly more luxurious past, W. Hamond were the first Jet manufacturers to set the gemstone in high-end jewellery with 18ct gold, platinum and diamonds. ‘Our most expensive suite of jewellery would set you back £44,000 for a necklace, earrings and bracelet set,’ Rebecca says. ‘Obviously, we don’t sell those everyday, but what we do sell are Jet and diamond engagement rings. Whitby is such a special place for so many couples that they love to incorporate it into their engagement and wedding rings. ‘The only limiting factor with Jet is its size. People forget that it is a rare gemstone – and it isn’t available in huge quantities or large sizes. It is, after all, a finite product and we are literally at the mercy of what nature gives us, so every piece should be treated as though it may be the last,’ explains Rebecca. Jet can be found elsewhere in the world, including
Germany, northern Spain, Turkey and New Mexico, but Whitby Jet is so renowned because the Jet found on Yorkshire beaches is such good quality. ‘Other Jet material doesn’t have that same mirror-like shine, it isn’t as stable and tough as that of Whitby’s, and won’t stand the test of time or variations in temperature and other factors,’ Rebecca explains. ‘For thousands of years, the Jet found from around the North Yorkshire Coast has always been the preferred material, and that’s what makes it so very special.’
To find out more about Whitby Jet or to check out the most recent collection visit www.whamond.com, and to delve further
REBECCA’S TOP TIPS FOR FINDING WHITBY JET ON YORKSHIRE BEACHES
‘Jet is found in a seam of tough shale which is found in the upper lias rocks from the lower Jurassic period,’ Rebecca explains. ‘Interestingly, there is no Jet to be found in Whitby itself, where the Jet seam is under sea level. Instead you have to go north to Runswick Bay or south to Robin Hood’s Bay, where the cliffs rise to a towering height and the Jet becomes exposed. It isn’t easy to find Jet and it can take a lot of practice to recognise the good from the bad, but the satisfaction when you find your own piece makes it all worthwhile.’
Providing you stick to the following rules, anybody can search for rough Jet on the beaches around Whitby:
Do not try to remove Jet from the cliffs – it has to wash off the cliffs naturally and then it can be beach-combed.
Always keep a safe distance from the cliffs. They are very unstable and rockfalls are common.
Know your tide times: make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to get to and from your search area.
‘The easiest way to tell if you have found real Whitby Jet is to take a piece of sandpaper with you. Rub your specimen against the paper – if it leaves a ginger-brown streak it is Jet but if it leaves a black streak it is coal.’