If it’s black and looks Victorian, it’s jet.
At least, that’s what I always thought when writing descriptions about vintage costume jewelry pieces.
In fact, most of the jewelry I’ve been calling jet is actually just black glass. But it’s not impossible to tell the difference, if you know what to look for.
What is jet?
Jet is the name given to most black jewelry whether it be genuine or glass.
Genuine jet is a brown-black lignite in which the texture or grain of the original fossilized wood of which this particular coal is comprised can still be seen.
It can be brought to a high polish and is thus easily imitated by glass.
“Black glass” is also know as imitation French jet, even though most black glass came from Bohemia.
This molded oval brooch with gold detail is likely imitation French jet, although it dates to early 20th century, based on the clasp.
Read more about glass jewelry production in the Czech.
Genuine jet is a fossil found only in Whitby
The finest genuine jet comes from Whitby, England, where over 200 workshops during the Victorian Era made jewelry from the fossilized remains of trees felled in the Jurassic period.
This velvety black-colored gemstone is only to be found within a seven-mile section of coastline, with the fishing town of Whitby at its heart.
For this reason, the gemstone is often simply referred to as “Whitby Jet”.
When the demand for this jet spiked in the Victorian Era (circa 1850-1900), it resulted in the cliffside of Whitby, England to nearly collapse.
Mining for this particular variety of jet became illegal in an attempt to preserve what was left of the cliffs, but Whitby remains a destination spot for fossil-hunting tourists.
Jet is a soft stone, so it was easily worked for carving without advanced technology.
It has been found in archaeological digs of Neolithic remains (10,000 BC), and also from ruins of ancient Rome, where jet rings, hair embellishments, and pendants have been discovered.
Whitby jet and Victorian Mourning jewelry
Queen Victoria wore Whitby jet as part of her mourning dress after Prince Albert’s passing.
All widows of rank – not just the queen – were expected to wear “widow’s weeds.”
Widow’s weeds had certain rules to maintain proper etiquette among the social elite.
Jet jewelry was expected during the first year or mourning, then diamonds or pearls were allowable during the second year.
Additional rules included a restriction on wearing earrings, which weren’t to be worn in public until two years after a husband’s death.
Pyrite, used in marcasite jewelry, was also acceptable for mourning during the Victorian era.
Read more about marcasite jewelry and fool’s gold, pyrite.
Whitby jet vs glass French jet
There are a few ways to identify genuine Whitby Jet.
- Whitby jet is warm to touch; however, glass French jet feels colder. Place the piece against the inside of your wrist or against your cheek to test the difference.
- When scratched on paper, Whitby jet makes a brown mark, but glass French jet leaves no trace of color.
- Whitby jet is stone that is much lighter (and softer!) than imitation French jet.
- Whitby jet is carved, not heated and molded like glass, so French jet will have molding marks or seams, signs of glass production.
Art Deco jet jewelry
The black and white jewelry that so well expressed Art Deco’s linear geometries brought jet back as a popular gemstone in the 1920s.
However, it’s relatively difficult to find genuine Whitby jet in Art Deco jewelry. Onyx, black glass (French jet), and black enamel were much more widely used.
As an example, this silver and diamond Maison Fouquet bracelet cuff used black enamel.
Read more about Art Deco jewelry materials and designers.
This Deco era Whitby jet and rhinestone was found at KCAVintageGems on Etsy for around $100.
A Goth Whitby Jet revival
Although jet is best known for its popularity as Victorian mourning jewelry, Gothic revivalists have embraced the gemstone from Whitby as a way to nail the Goth aesthetic.
It helps that Bram Stoker used the cliffs of Whitby and its abbey’s 199 steps in his gothic romance Dracula (1897).
Whitby is in fact the official Goth capital of the UK, with its annual Whitby Goth Weekend®, a vampiric black bonanza and Whitby Jet celebration.
Shop gothic revival and Victorian mourning style jewelry for sale at minusOne.
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