Queen Victoria was very fond of jewelry and also of the sentimental significance that could be attached to certain jewels. Jet was the ideal material for mourning jewelry in fact, strict Victorian etiquette required that jet was the only stone to be worn during the mourning period and the changing rituals of mourning in this era are closely mirrored in the styling of jet jewelry. The greatest amount was produced following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when women were compelled to wear it during the mourning period. Earlier mourning jewelry was light in appearance and frequently embellished with white enamel, whereas Victorian mourning jewelry was heavy, solemn, and gloomy.
Jet is fossilized driftwood, and has been mined since prehistoric times. It was mined extensively near the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby, the large-scale mining and working of Whitby's jet dating to soon after 1800. The popularity of this material increased tremendously, and by 1870 the number of people employed in the field had increased to 1,400. The level of skill and intricacy of carving also increased, and in many cases more than one specialist carver would work on the same piece. Delicately carved flowers and leaves, chains without breaks in the links, cameos, bangles, knots, and twists were all produced by artisans' hands. The finished article could then be polished to a high sheen or given a textured matt finish.
By 1880, the industry fell foul of the changing whims of Victorian fashion, which turned to lighter, less intricate pieces, with a resulting decline in craftsmanship.
• In the last quarter of the 19th century Whitby could no longer service the enormous demand, and a poorer-quality soft jet, which broke easily and dulled quickly, was imported from Spain. Imitations also arrived on the scene, and it is important to identify these see right.
• Always study the reverse of a piece, although it is quite rare to find signatures or other makers' marks on jet.
• Paint or ink is sometimes used to obscure repair work on jet, so be aware of slight changes in colour and texture.
A short-lived imitator of jet was bog oak, a fossilized wood found in the ancient peat bogs of Ireland, which is softer than jet and is brown in colour with a matt finish. Today, bog oak is a collector's field in itself and is not easily mistaken for Whitby jet.
Of all the imitators, French jet was the most successful. This is a glass that was either cut and faceted or moulded into shapes. It polishes to a very high sheen but is very brittle, chipping easily, and in poor-quality examples mould lines can be seen. Pieces were commonly mounted onto a black metal backing.
In addition, compressed dyed wood powder was commonly made into "carved" cameos. These are not carved, however, but moulded, and many of the “jet” cameos found today are of this type of material. Vulcanized rubber and other early plastics were also used to imitate jet, and although they are not always convincing, care must be taken in identification.
Writer – Steven Miners