Historical Reading List: Mourning Jewellery – Whitby Jet

A bracelet of black jet beads on a coiled elastic to resemble a snake.
A modern bracelet made of jet beads. Photo: Orasa Weldon/GIA

The geological name “jet” refers to a hard type of lignite coal used occasionally in jewellery because it is uniformly coloured, is capable of being carved or turned on a small lathe, and can attain a high polish.  It is a lustrous, opaque, black or dark grey organic material. It has been found at various places in the world, but the best known source is the coastal area of Yorkshire in north-eastern England near the coastal village of Whitby.  The use of jet for personal adornment dates back at least 5,000 years in England (and elsewhere), but the material became popular with the Romans during their four-century occupation of the island (AD 43 to circa 410).  While being found around Whitby, archaeological evidence suggests that at the time the material was sent to nearby Eboracum (present-day York) to be manufactured for jewellery use.  Archaeological jewellery artefacts containing jet can be seen in museum collections in several countries.

The use of Whitby jet is cited in various historical works.  For example, in the two-volume epic poem entitled “Poly-Olbion: A Chorographicall Description of Great Britain” by Michael Drayton (dated 1612 and 1622), there is the following mention in Section 28:

“The rocks by Moulgrave [Mulgrave Castle near Whitby], too, my glories further to set, Out of their crayed cleves can give you perfect jet.”

In more modern times, jet began to be manufactured in Whitby for jewellery purposes in the early 1800s.  The famous 1851 Great Exhibition in London helped introduce the material to a wider international audience.  Its use in mourning jewellery became popular in Victorian society after 1861 with the death in that year of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and this trend continued for several decades.  By the end of the 19th century, the utilisation of jet in jewellery had decreased.

Around Whitby, jet is occasionally found as irregular, horizontal coal-like seams in certain layered sedimentary rocks (mainly shales).  It is collected in places where these seams are exposed on the edges of coastal cliffs, or as pieces broken off from rock exposures and later washed up on the beaches during storms.  Mining also took place underground between the 1840s and the 1920s along tunnels dug from the side of the cliffs, or from vertical shafts excavated from the surface.

The name “jet” is derived from the Old French word jaiet, which in turn comes from the Latin gagates (taken from Gagae, an ancient Greco-Roman town on the south-east coast of Asia Minor in present-day Turkey).

How To Use This Reading List

This reading list was compiled to give you an opportunity to learn more about the history of Whitby jet. A number of the articles were published in the 1800s and early 1900s – when many classical gem deposits of historical importance were discovered – and gemmology and mineralogy became sciences. The list is presented in chronological order to emphasise the development of ideas over time. The list is not comprehensive, but a compilation of the sometimes interesting gemmological information that has often been forgotten or overlooked.

Many of the articles exist in the public domain and can be found online at digital libraries such as Hathitrust, Internet Archive or other digital repositories. More recent publications can often be found in libraries, including the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library. Abstracts of these articles can usually be found on the website of the original journal or magazine, and the article itself is often available for purchase from the publisher.

Regarding the GIA library’s holdings and on-site access, please contact the GIA library in Carlsbad.

Jet and Jet Ornaments, Unknown author, Art Journal, Vol. 13, (November), p. 272 (1851). This short article describes the manufacture of jet and its prominent display in the 1851 Great Exhibition.

The Whitby Jet and Ammonite Ornaments, R. Hunt, Art Journal, Vol. 18, (May), pp. 154-156 (1856). The author begins with the statement, “There are not many branches of art-manufacture which are of more interest than the working of jet”.  He describes the ancient and more recent uses of jet for personal adornment, and the development of a major manufacturing industry in Whitby.

A Jet Exhibition, Unknown author, Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 42, No. 55, pp. 24-25 (1865). The article reports an exhibition of articles of use and ornamentation made of jet to draw attention to the local manufacturing industry in Whitby.  Owing to its brittle nature and the possibility of fracture, the working of jet is a peculiar art calling for “much delicacy and tact on the part of the workman”.  Since there is no method to combine chips or small pieces into masses of workable size, great care is taken with the larger pieces of good-quality jet that are occasionally found.  Manufacturing requires that the worker examine the available pieces, and then decide on how best to transform them into useful objects.  The piece is first sawn into a block of approximately the desired shape, followed by the grinding off of any sharp edges.  Any ornamentation is then marked or engraved on the surface with a steel point.  Creating the design requires cutting with knives, chisels or other tools.  The final step involves polishing the object against a small revolving wheel.

Jet, Unknown author, Art Journal, Vol. 30, (November), p. 232 (1868).  A brief discussion is presented on jet which, according to the author, was known in ancient times to both Theophrastus and Pliny.

What the Piece of Jet had to Say! J.E. Taylor, Hardwicke’s Science Gossip, Vol. 7, No. 76, pp. 73-76 (1871). The author describes the sedimentary limestone and shale beds in which the seams of jet are found, and he discusses some of the prehistoric creatures whose fossils occur in the sedimentary rocks in north-eastern England.

The Jet Trade of Whitby, H. Curwen, The Practical Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 7, pp. 24-27 (1873).  The jet mines around the town, and the manufacture of this material for decorative purposes, are discussed.

Whitby Jet and its Manufacture, J.A. Bower, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 22, No. 1100, pp. 80-87 (1873). The article is a printed version of a public lecture given by the author on the history of the use of jet for personal adornment, and of its manufacture in some 200 workshops in Whitby which provided work to about 1,500 individuals.  The article presents one of the more detailed discussions of the topic.

Whitby Jet, Unknown author, All the Year Round, Vol. 12, (May 30), pp. 155-158 (1874).  General information on the history, occurrence and manufacture of jet for jewellery and ornamental use is presented. The same article was published in the same year in Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 122, No. 1571, pp. 185-188, and in Locke’s National Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 9, pp. 426-429.

Ueber den Gagat [On Jet], J. Nöggerath, Jahrbücher des Vereins von Alterthumsfreunden im Rheinlande, Vol. 11, pp. 52-64 (1874). The author discusses the historical use of the term “gagat”.

On Jet Mining, C. Parkin, Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 31 (17 December), pp. 51-58 (1881).  The author presents information on the occurrence, mining and manufacturing of jet.

Real Whitby Jet, Unknown author, Cassell’s Family Magazine, pp. 143-146 (1882). This article presents general information on the mining and manufacturing of jet at Whitby.

Jet, Unknown author, Random Notes on Natural History, Vol. 1, No. 10, p. 6 (1884).  A brief discussion of jet.

Jet, Unknown author, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 5, p. 527 (1888).  A brief note on jet manufacturing.

The Whitby Jet Industry, P. Hemery, Pearson’s Magazine, Vol. 3 (January), pp. 110-112 (1897).  A short article that summarises the occurrence and manufacture of jet.

On Jet Beads Found in Ireland, W. Frazer, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 221-223 (1892).  Article not seen.

On the Structure and Origin of Jet, A.C. Seward, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 49, No. 2551, p. 796 (1901). This is a summary of a lecture given by the author at the 71st meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that was held that year in Glasgow.  While the origin of jet had been the subject of debate, the author concludes based on field evidence that jet owes its origin to the alteration over geological time of coniferous wood that had been buried in sediments.

In a Jet Shop, R.F. Broomfield, American Illustrated Methodist Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 439-441 (1901). The author describes the activities of a jet workshop in Whitby.

The Mining of Jet, Unknown author, Stone – An Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 28. No. 6, pp. 356-358 (1907). A brief description is given of jet mining near Whitby.

On the Origin of Jet, P.E. Spielmann, Chemical News, Vol. 94, No. 2455, pp. 281-283 (1906); and Vol. 97, No. 2525, pp. 181-183 (1908).  Based on a comparison of jet with bitumen and other fossilised organic materials, the author concludes that jet is the product of the fossilisation of coniferous wood.

Zur Entstehung des Gagats [On the Formation of Jet], W. Gothan, Sitzungsberichte der Koniglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, No. 10, pp. 221-227 (1890).  The article presents a discussion of the geological origin of jet.

The Effect of the War on the Whitby Jet Industry, Unknown author, Jewelers’ Circular, Vol. 74, No. 21, p. 41 (1917). The article describes the British industry being affected by the use of lower-quality jet material from Germany.

“The Rise and Fall of the Whitby Jet Trade”, T.H. Woodwark, Whitby Library and Philosophical Society, Whitby (1922).  Book not seen.

The Historical Geography of the Town, Port, and Roads of Whitby, W.G. East, Geographical Journal, Vol. 80, No. 6, pp. 484-497 (1932). Article not seen.

“The Story of Whitby Jet: Its Workers from Earliest Times”, H.P. Kendall, Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, Whitby, 27 pp. (1936).  Book not seen.

Jet – The Black Beauty Gem, H.H. Cox, Lapidary Journal, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 334-342 (1952). General information is presented on jet and its fabrication for jewellery use.

Amber, Jet and Ivory, R. Webster, Gemmologist, Vol. 27, No. 321, pp. 65-72 (1958). A brief discussion is given of jet and other gem materials.

Geochemistry of the Whitbian (Upper Lias) Sediments of the Yorkshire Coast, M.A. Gad, J.A. Catt and H.H. Le Riche, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 105-140 (1968). The article summarises the geology of the area near Whitby, and discusses the conditions of the occurrence and formation of jet.

The Production of Jet as an Occupation, C.P. McCord, Archives of Environmental Health, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 573-577 (1970). Article not seen.

Jet Mining in North East Yorkshire, J.S. Owen, Cleveland Industrial Archaeologist, No. 3, pp. 13-22 (1975).  Article not seen.

“Jet Jewellery and Ornaments”, H. Muller, Shire Publications Ltd. (1980).  Book not seen.

The Characterisation of Early Bronze Age Jet and Jet-like Material by X-Ray Fluorescence, G.D. Bussell, A.M. Pollard, and D.C. Baird, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Vol. 76, pp. 27-32 (1981). The use of a non-destructive X-ray analysis method to distinguish jet-like materials is discussed.

Mourning and Memorial Jewelry of the Victorian Age, P.C. Warner, Dress, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 55-60 (1986). Article not seen.

Whitby Jet, D.E. Kemp, Lapidary Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 37-41 (1986).  General information is presented on jet as a gem material.

Identification of Jet and Related Black Materials with ESR (Electron Spin Resonance) Spectroscopy, K.D. Sales, A.D. Oduwole, J. Convert, and G.V. Robins, Archaeometry, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 103-109 (1987). This article discusses the identification of black gem materials found in archaeological sites.

“Whitby Jet Through the Years”, M. McMillan, Whitby, 280 pp. (1992).  Book not seen.

The Scientific Identification of Archaeological Jet-Like Artefacts, F.J. Hunter, J.G. McDonnell, A.M. Pollard, C.R. Morris, and C.C. Rowlands, Archaeometry, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 69-89 (1993). A review of the identification of jet-like artefacts using a variety of analytical techniques is presented.

Who Changed the Victorian Jewelry World – A Look at the Unknown Story of Jet, C. Dunay, JQ [Jewelers’ Quarterly] Magazine (March/April), pp. 93-96 (1995). With the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria was joined by much of high society throughout the British Empire and in Europe in the wearing of jet mourning jewellery.

Coal as a Gemmological Object, S.V. Glushnev, World of Stones, No. 9, pp. 50-53 (1996). Data are presented on the properties of various jet materials, mainly those of Siberian origin.

Identification of ‘Jet’ Artefacts by Reflected Light Microscopy, L. Allason-Jones and J.M. Jones, European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 233-251 (2001). The authors describe the examination of various jet artefacts using a microscopy technique to distinguish different materials.

Ricerche di Iconografia Mineralogica: 1. La Pietra “Gagate” nel Codex Medicus Graecus della Biblioteca Nazionale Austriaca [Studies in Mineral Iconography: 1. The “Gagate” Stone in the Austrian National Library Codex Medicus Graecus], A. Mottana, Rendiconti Lincei, Vol. 13, No. 2, Art. 89 (2002). The author describes what he believes may be the first coloured image of a mineral – the “gagate” stone or jet – that appears in this scientific publication created in about 512 AD in Constantinople.

“Whitby Jet: A Brief History”, A. Whitworth, Culva House Publications, Whitby, 48 pp. (2005).  Book not seen.

Yorkshire Jet and Its Links to Pliny the Elder, W.T. Dean, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, Vol. 56, (November), pp. 261-265 (2007). While jet as a gem material is known from Whitby and other locations, the name is derived from Gagae, the archaeological site of a town in south-western Turkey.  The name seems to have been applied in ancient times to a number of substances.  The author discusses possible geological materials from this region of Turkey that may have been used as jet in Greco-Roman times.

“Whitby Jet”, H. Muller and K. Muller, Shire Publications, Oxford, 56 pp. (2009).  Book not seen.

Whitby Jet Jewels in the Victorian Age, L. Mendonça de Carvalho, F.M. Fernandes, M. de Fátima-Nunes and J. Brigola, Harvard Papers in Botany, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 133-136 (2013). The authors discuss the use of jet mourning jewellery in the late 19th century.

Jet Cross Pendants from the British Isles and Beyond: Forms, Distribution and Use, E. Pierce, Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 198-211 (2013). Cross pendants made of Whitby jet, apparently in the 12th century, have been found in Norway and Greenland.

Consumers and Artisans: Marketing Amber and Jet in the early Medieval British Isles, C. Coulter, Everyday Products in the Middle Ages, G. Hansen, S.P. Ashby and I. Baug (Eds.), Oxbow Books, Philadelphia, pp. 110-124 (2015).  The author discusses the importance of both amber and jet as trade commodities in the Middle Ages.

Advanced Jet Testing, S. Steele, Gems & Jewellery, Vol. 25, No. 5, pp. 22-25 (2016).  Characterisation of Whitby jet samples by ion beam analysis techniques.

Dr James Shigley is a distinguished research fellow at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California.

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