A Brief History of Jet

The words Whitby and Jet are synonymous and for very good reasons. The geology of the coastline and the mining of this gemstone have become an indelible part of Whitby's heritage. Most people are aware of the significance of Whitby Jet during the mid and late 19th century and are quick to establish its mourning connotations. I do not deny the importance of this fact in Victorian Britain, as mourning was almost an art form at that time, but I do wish to press the point that this was only a small part of its illustrious history. In 1851 at the Great Exhibition some very talented carvers travelled to London and exhibited their work in response to the rising popularity of Jet jewellery as a fashion item. The exhibition was orchestrated by Prince Albert and was a celebration of all that Britain had achieved and could offer to the world. It was not until 1861, a decade later, that he died precipitating the lengthy period of mourning that was now to engulf the Queen and her family. I would suggest that this situation gave an extra impetus to what was already an established industry and in my experience only some twenty five percent of the jewellery manufactured in this town was specifically 'in memorandum' jewellery.

The history of Jet traces the development of prehistoric man from as early as the Stone Age and has continued to be more or less significant up to the present day. Of course the colour black has long been associated with mourning but it has also a history of utilitarianism as Ford found when he first introduced the assembly line to motor vehicle production: "any colour you like as long as it's black". On the other hand many precious things when black acquire an extra cachet of mystery and worth. Black coral is much sought after, a black opal a rarity, and who can deny the sumptuous beauty of a black pearl. In a world of minerals and gemstones that offer a myriad of colour there is a notable dearth of black apart from the ubiquitous onyx. I prefer to see Whitby Jet as an embodiment of classical chic, a simple sophistication that is timeless and on a lighter note, Coco Chanel's 'little black dress' had nothing to do with mourning!

The nomadic life style of the hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age has made finding artefacts very difficult, however, important finds from this era have been made. The early practice of wearing jewellery took the form of an amulet or talisman that would bring good fortune in their hunting and protect them from danger. In 1916 a representation of a Dassel fly larva (a major parasite on the reindeer) was found in the Swabian Alps near Heubach. These larvae are still considered a delicacy by some of the Inuit people of Alaska. Further finds depicted a stylised female figure, which is still considered to be a universal symbol for fecundity in many cultures today. All were drilled suggesting that they were worn as pendants. This practice is still an important part of the jewellery trade and I have been asked to make many 'meaningful' items for people around the world. Hitikkis for New Zealand, and the clenched fist higas of Spain are amongst some of the amulets that have been requested, and closer to home, the heart, anchor and cross-depicting faith, hope, and charity are always popular. These are just a few and certainly not the strangest commissions but then we always welcome a challenge!

But it was not until the Bronze Age that Jet started to be used on a significant basis. During the 19th century many of the barrows that formed the burial places of these early settlers were excavated and some astonishing finds were made. Life would not have been easy for Bronze Age man but the more sedate lifestyle that their primitive agricultural methods allowed may have prompted the increase in production of these items for personal adornment. A great many of these barrows exist in Yorkshire and from the many archaeological finds it seems that beads were the most favoured items although there are several examples of buttons and conical studs. In Scotland too there were many splendid finds and it was one such find that eventually presented my father-in-law and myself with a fascinating commission that we were privileged to undertake. In 1928 a burial mound at Kill y Kiaran, Scotland was excavated and lying amongst the remains of the body was a necklace consisting of in excess of one hundred beads, the original is on display in a museum in Edinburgh. More recently the Kilmartin House Trust was set up in Argyllshire which sought to build a new museum to display the many items of cultural interest that were a part of this area.

Click for a larger image Click for a larger image

Naturally, the curators, David and Rachel Clough, wanted a replica of this splendid necklace as a feature in their new museum and we were commissioned to provide it. It is a magnificent necklace comprised of conical beads that started out with three strands from two large elongated triangles. These passed through two spacer plates into four strands and then through two more into seven strands. The complex drilling that was required to achieve this configuration is all the more amazing given the limited tools that must have been used. It was a labour of love and indicated the importance of the deceased. It has been suggested by several historians that ornaments of this nature were incarcerated with the deceased to ensure their elevated position in the after life. X-ray fluorescence has determined that all but twenty-four of the one hundred and seventeen parts were of Whitby Jet and this suggests strongly that it would have been imported given the exclusive geographical location of Whitby Jet. The intense blackness of Jet may have represented the darkness of the night sky and all the astronomical wonders that early tool making man could not possibly have comprehended. Further more when Jet is rubbed vigorously, static electricity is induced and whilst this is not a surprising phenomenon to us, a Bronze Age man seeing bits of dust and small debris fly to it, in the absence of any scientific explanation, may have thought that the stone contained some mystical magical powers. Fanciful? Perhaps, but it would have enhanced the reputation of Jet as a protector and provider of good fortune and the prominence it held as an item for barter underpinned this important aspect.

The City of York is a pleasant drive over the moors from Whitby and has on many occasions featured predominantly in British history. It was called Eboracum in Roman times and there are many reasons why it is possible to deduce that the Romans had a very high regard for Whitby Jet. Eboracum was a city of great importance and the centre of their occupation of Britain; this in turn meant that many dignitaries were stationed there. Only the important and infants were permitted to be buried within the city boundaries and these Roman coffins revealed a wealth of jewellery. There was a greater variety of jewellery than in the Bronze Age, for along with the usual beads, were eardrops, armlets, rings and hairpins. During the excavation of the old railway station in York, a whole workshop was found and later, in the same area, a coffin revealed a Roman lady's coiled and wound tresses still containing the jet pins. These are in the Yorkshire museum along with many other Roman Jet artefacts. Our own museum at Pannet Park in Whitby also has a fine collection of Whitby Jet artefacts including some Roman jet items. A particularly interesting piece is one of two perfect rings that has a pointed projection on it, was this a seal, a key, or even a tool for opening seafood? Who knows? Rings were also found at Huntcliff, the site of another Roman fort, and Goldsborough, a signal station. Medallions and carved Roman cameos together with carved animals, featured in the Roman preferences, particularly the bear, with the head of Medusa being a favourite on the medallions.

The Romans left to defend their homeland, leaving in their wake, a country unable to defend itself against the attacks from mainland Europe. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes took Britain into the Dark Ages and another era was born. The Saxon Monastery, known as Streanaeshalch, has also revealed pieces of Jet jewellery and literary evidence refers to beads, rings, and crosses that were worn by the monks.

An ornately carved Victorian cross from the authors private collection.The Abbey was one of many that were to be the target of the marauding Vikings, who also sacked York. They promptly renamed it Jorvik and renamed the town (along with fourteen hundred others) under the Abbey, Vitby -white town-. During the following period they relinquished their violent ways and settled to a life of good husbandry and rural harmony. During the 9th century Jorvic developed into a major trading centre and port and many pieces of Jet have been found in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Thus Jet was once again cast into a new era were its beauty was rediscovered and newly interpreted. A superb Viking cross was unearthed at York, strikingly decorated with yellow orpiment (a vivid pigment but deadly poisonous) and once again carved figures depicting animals were a common amulet. A chess piece was also found in York and is reputedly of Viking origin, which, interestingly, extends the range of uses that Whitby Jet has served.

The years following The Viking era were known as the medieval period, which was punctuated by long periods of intense and often conflicting religious activity. This too has had an influence on Whitby Jet and during this period it was used predominantly for ecclesiastical purposes. The Pannet park museum contains two items of particular interest. A 14th century cross that was discovered pinned to a 'witching' post in a cottage in Egton. These posts were used to attach items that would protect the household from the effects of evil. A similar cross is to be found in Scarborough museum, the mysterious and magical properties attributed to Jet in combination with the Christian symbolism presented a very potent talisman. In fact the following poem written by Marbode, the Bishop of Rennes captures the received opinion of the day.

'Lycia her jet in medicine commends;
But chiefest, that which distant Britain sends;
Black light and polished, to itself it draws
If warmed by friction near adjacent straws.
Though quenched by oil, its smouldering embers raise
Sprinkled by water, a still fiercer blaze;
It cures the dropsy, shaky teeth are fixed
Washed with the powder'd stone in water mixed.
The female womb its piercing fumes relieve,
Nor epilepsy can this test deceive;
From its deep hole it lures the viper fell,
And chases away the powers of hell;
It heals the swelling plagues that gnaw the heart,
And baffles spells and magic's noxious art.
This by the wise and surest test is styled
Of virgin purity by lust defiled.
Three days in water steeped, the draught bestows
Ease to the pregnant womb in travail's throes.'

(King 1860)

I can only comment that due to the vast amounts of Jet dust I have swallowed in my lifetime, I look forward to a long and healthy life!

At the beginning of the 19th century a retired naval officer, Captain Tremlett, had observed the rudimentary workings of two men in Whitby who were engaged in the manufacture of Whitby Jet beads and crosses. The men, a painter named Robert Jefferson and a publican named John Carter used the most basic of files and homemade carving implements. Captain Tremlett, who had some experience of turning Amber on a lathe, wondered if the same process could be adapted for Jet. With this in mind he approached a local turner, Mathew Hill, who succeeded in producing some beads on a lathe. However, Mr Hill had grave misgivings about the future of any such enterprise. Never the less Captain Tremlett, in true entrepreneurial spirit, arranged to pay him his wages as a Jet turner and soon the first Jet workshop was set up at John Carter's house in Haggersgate 1808. Thus started the meteoritic rise of the Jet industry in Whitby and before long there were a dozen shops engaged in the manufacture of beads. By the 1850's there were approximately fifty workshops and the trade was well established. The natural isolation of this picturesque fishing town was greatly alleviated by the rapid development of the railway system and this also meant that the problems of distribution were eliminated. This together with the development of the 'annual holiday' in Victorian times brought many more people to the town of Whitby. Many availed themselves of the local products, in particular the now extremely fashionable Whitby Jet. The oldest street in Whitby is Church Street on the East side and is where my own premises are domiciled. At this time it was a hive of Jet shops and small manufacturing premises. The larger manufacturers were situated on the West side of the river Esk in what are now the main streets of the town. The boom in business continued unabated and rose to an annual turnover in excess of £100.000.00 and employed fourteen hundred men in Jet related trades. The pound had a purchasing power of £33.93p by today's value giving an equivalent turnover of over three million pounds! A huge amount by any standards, but not all were enthused by Whitby's success and I must quote in its entirety an article published in the Scarborough Gazette in 1873:

'Surely no modern manufacture of trumpery ever rivalled this ugliness. With a refinement of cruelty some workers embed sections of ammonites in it; others, and this is the ne plus ultra of richness, surround it with a fretwork of alabaster; and you may have a card tray of this glittering inconclusive material with the classic features of Victor Emmanuel staring at you in jet from the bottom. One wonders who can buy such things but there are for some people who must have the speciality of the place they are in, however base and trivial it may be'

(Bower 1873)

I cannot help but smile every time I read this, a smile I am sure that was shared by the Whitby craftsmen at the time. It is one of the finest examples of journalistic sour grapes I have ever seen, and Whitby Jet marched inexorably on.

The great Exhibition in London did much to introduce Whitby Jet to the world. At this 1851 exhibition the famous Whitby jet carver Isaac Greenbury showed his work and received an auspicious order from the Empress of France. This established a long tradition of fine work from the Greenbury family as in 1873 his nephew, Edward Hesleton Greenbury was acknowledged as one of the most gifted jet sculptors belonging to the industry. His work won many prizes and earned him the freedom of the Worshipful Company of the Turners of London and freedom of the city. Some examples of his work are contained in Pannet park museum and the Rotunda museum of Scarborough. The apprenticeship was a lengthy affair for these talented men and I have included a copy of a typical document that was kindly donated by a customer of mine. The lamentable decline of the industry meant that men with this prodigious ability were no longer needed but it is their memory and the remaining examples of their work that serve as a reminder of Jets illustrious past and are an ever-present incentive for contemporary craftsmen. We shall endeavour.

Indenture Document