By David Brough
“Whitby jet”, the black fossilised wood renowned for having been used as mourning jewellery by Queen Victoria, has been given a new lease of life in contemporary designs.
Whitby is the home of the scarce gemstone jet, which is found in its rough form as lightweight pebbles washed in on the tide within an eight mile radius of the centre of the North Yorkshire seaside town.
Today jet can be found in a myriad of contemporary designs on display in a couple of dozen jewellery shops scattered around the tourist town of Whitby, mainly in Church Street and Sandgate in the historic centre, amidst the fish and chips and confectionery outlets.
Whitby jet cufflinks featuring Fordite and synthetic opal
Jet has had a turbulent history in Whitby, combining boom times and slumps.
“The peak boom times for Whitby jet were from around 1860-80,” says Sarah Caldwell Steele, a leading authority on Whitby jet who owns a specialist jet jewellery shop, The Ebor Jetworks, on Church Street.
Sarah Caldwell Steele at The Ebor Jetworks
Queen Victoria wore jet jewellery after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. No examples of the royal mourning jewellery are known to survive today.
Caldwell Steele, a research gemmologist, spent hours “jetting” along the local beaches during the recent lockdowns, searching for sea-washed Whitby jet to incorporate into her own jewellery designs.
Sarah Caldwell Steele “jetting”
While the coastline near Whitby yields the world’s best gem-quality jet, it has also been found in small quantities in other areas of the British Isles such as Mull (Scotland), Somerset and Oxfordshire. Further afield, contemporary jet working communities are also to be found in northern Spain, Turkey, Venezuela, Siberia and the USA.
The carving of an anatomical heart in progress
Caldwell Steele owns authentic pieces of finely crafted Victorian jet mourning jewellery, which can be seen in a museum section of her shop upstairs, which she also uses as her office.
Victorian Whitby jet mourning collar and brooch
Even before Queen Victoria popularised jet, it had a high status as mourning jewellery in the European royal courts.
It was used as mourning jewellery in the British Empire following the death of King George IV in 1830.
Late in Queen Victoria’s reign, jet lost popularity, triggering a slump in the local economy of Whitby where, in its heyday, some 200 factories and workshops had manufactured jet for jewellery, Caldwell Steele said.
Jet remained out of favour well into the 20th century as the vast scale of devastation caused by the First World War and Spanish flu, destroyed the fashion for wearing mourning jewellery.
More recently, jet has reinvented itself in contemporary designs, from pendants to necklaces, earrings and cufflinks.
Freeform faceted Whitby jet drop earrings
“We are however starting to see a demand for something beyond the basic silver and gold settings,” Caldwell Steele said.
“Customers are certainly invested in the heritage of jet but we are breathing new life into the ancient material by combining it with bright colours, playing with freeform facets and carving unexpected themes. The current obsession with all things magical has also led to popular demand for our Whitby jet scrying mirrors, witch charms and even grave goods.”
Whitby jet scrying mirror
Caldwell Steele is known for using Whitby jet in her so-called “Whit-Bee” designs inspired by a growing fascination for bees amidst worries over the environment.
Global trade in jet poses a threat to British manufacturers retailing genuine Whitby jet. Jet has no trademark. Caldwell Steele is conducting research to determine the country of origin for the gem materials.
“It’s a real case of buyer beware, especially when purchasing Victorian jet online,” Caldwell Steele said.
Natural Whitby jet is in ever tighter supply, with “jetting” forays typically yielding just a few pieces — even for Caldwell Steele who knows the best places along the shore to search for it.