Eons-old jet in vogue through the ages
NEW YORK – Jet, a black gemstone of fossilized wood, is primarily sourced in the cliffs and moors adjoining Whitby, a historic seaside town in North Yorkshire, England.
Since jet finger-rings, amulets, cones and beads have been found in Neolithic and Bronze Age burials in that region and farther, archeologists believe ancients associated its dark presence with death.
Similarly, Greeks associated jet with the underworld goddess, who welcomed the dead to her realm. In addition, they dedicated it to Cybele, goddess of nature, agriculture, healing and fertility.
When ignited, wrote Pliny the Elder in first century Rome, fumes of this costly, magical material drove off snakes and deflected the Evil Eye. Powdered and boiled with wine, it cured toothache; mixed with wax, it cured “wicked” tumors. Naturalists, centuries later, observed that jet burns in water, is extinguished by oil, and like amber, becomes electric through friction and warms to the touch. It was also considered an excellent remedy for dropsy (edema).
In Roman Britain (A.D. 43 to 410), carved armlets, finger-rings, hair pins, beads, bangles, bracelets and brooches, made from mined or beachcombed jet, were the height of fashion. In Ireland, jet amulets protected against a litany of perils, including poison, demonic possession, disease, sorcery, snakebites and thunder.
Through the Middle Ages, nuns and monks favored jet prayer beads, crucifixes and amulets, perhaps because they merged protective pagan power with religious belief. So did travelers on pilgrimage, who purchased them as souvenirs.
Whitby’s first jet workshop, established in the early 1800s, sourced local, uniformly black, hard, dense material – considered the world’s best. By mid-century, highly polished, hand-carved jet had become so popular that Queen Victoria designated Thomas Andrews as her official “Jet Ornament Maker.” A year later, when jet necklaces, bracelets and brooches were featured at London’s Great Exhibition, this lightweight gem also reached an international audience.
Jet jewelry was popularized, however, when Queen Victoria, mourning the death of
Prince Albert in 1861, obliged her entire court to mourn with her. In time, common folk too, following fashion, mourned private losses by accessorizing their dark crepe outfits with jet mourning rings, beads, buttons, bracelets, crosses, earrings and lockets. Sentimental, jet-rimmed bars and brooches, often featuring locks of the deceased person’s hair, were also popular.
Hundreds of Whitby jet workshops emerged, employing well over 1,000 grinders, cutters, lathe turners, carvers, polishers and finishers, met mourners’ needs. In addition to jewelry, they produced jet spindles, loom weights, visiting card trays, chess sets and decorative carvings.
As demand grew, some workshops imported softer jet, more suited to beads than finer works, from France or Spain. Others marketed less costly “French” black glass, obsidian, dyed horn, gutta percha or vulcanite as genuine jet.
Although shiny jet beads jazzed up flapper belts, headbands, pumps and dresses through the Roaring ’20s, these – and similar pieces, soon fell from fashion.
Across the American Southwest, however, native tribes had long adorned silver necklaces, finger-rings, earrings, pins and bracelets with bits of locally sourced gems, including jet – albeit for their own use. As rail service expanded, scores, produced specifically for market, reached the general public. Since the 1970s, demand for traditional and contemporary Native American gem-inlay silver has soared, especially among tourists and collectors.
In recent years, fashionistas, charmed by one-of-a-kind creations by luxury jewelers like Pomellato, Vhernier , Romolo Grassi and Yossi Harari, have also discovered the allure of this dramatic, old-new gem.
These days, Whitby supports just a handful of workers. Yet biannually, it goes to the dark side, hosting Goth Weekend, an alternate music festival celebrating Gothic subculture, along with the town’s association with Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Jet enthusiasts often come to strut their stuff. So do New-Agers who, observes Nicholas Pearson in Stones of the Goddess: Crystals for the Divine Feminine, wear jet gems for “binding, banishing, protection, preventing nightmares and hex-breaking.” – as of old.