WHAT IS WHITBY JET?

180 million years old, the gemstone Whitby jet is anaerobically fossilised wood of the Araucaria tree. The modern day descendant of the Araucaria is the Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria Araucana) also known as the Chilean Pine.

Whitby jet was formed during the Jurassic era. Cataclysmic weather events caused flash flooding which resulted in devastation of the environment and swept large amounts of debris including the Araucaria trees into the sea. These trees became waterlogged and sunk into the thick sedimentary mud on the sea bed. The sedimentary mud formed an anaerobic seal around the trees preventing normal decomposition. This mud contained high levels of hydrocarbon oils which the wood absorbed. The combination of these unique factors prevented silicification of the wood and caused complex chemical changes to occur quickly in the cells of the plant. Over time layers of sediment built up causing pressure which compressed these ancient trees, further aiding the anaerobic fossilisation process and forming what we now call Whitby jet. 

Whitby jet is famed for is deep and intense black colour and the lustrous shine that can be achieved by polishing it. It is also very light in weight making it perfect for jewellery. Whitby jet has a hardness of 3.5-4 on the Mohs hardness scale. 

WHERE IS IT FOUND?

Deposits of Whitby jet are seen as narrow planks in our cliffs in seams of shale. These deposits are found along a 7.5 mile stretch of North Yorkshire coastline, which Whitby nestles in the middle of. The deposits of Whitby jet also run through the cliff inland under the moors. 

 

In the Victorian era jet was mined both inland and along the coast. Jet is no longer mined and all our jet is found through natural coastal erosion. We can guarantee the source origin of all our Whitby jet.

 

On the top of the jet shale there is a thin but clearly visible layer of limestone known as the "Top Jet Dogger" this was used by victorian miners as an indication of where there may be deposits of Whitby jet, it also provided a relatively stable 'roof' for their excavations.

VICTORIAN JET MINING

Until the Victorian era there hadn't been any need to mine jet because the demand for it was satisfied by coastal erosion, as it now. The first Victorian Whitby jet workshop was established in 1808 and by 1850 there were 50 workshops which would grow to some 200 workshops at the height of the jet industry in the 1870's.

 

The development of this new industry demanded a greater volume and more reliable provision of Jet. Collectors began to dig into the cliffs using the Top Jet Dogger as guideline. This then progressed to mining in earnest, in 1851 a rare draft lease allows the miner "to make all necessary desses drifts tunnels and other works as shall be found necessary" for searching for, getting and removing the Jet. This draft lease related to the cliffs near Gnipe Howe Farm, northeast of High Hawsker. Mining was both dangerous and low paid work. Even at the height of the demand for Jet jewellery the miners wages remained very low at approximately £1.25p per week for a six-day week.

Much of the mining along the cliff face was done by lowering the miners over the edge of the cliff face on makeshift rope harnesses. Inland mining was done by digging tunnels 'drifts' into the soft hillside with picks until the shale became too hard to mine. Once a drift had been exhausted the miners would dig a new drift until they had created a warren of tunnels. Large stone pillars were used to support the tunnels however the miners were faced with the ever present danger of the drifts collapsing. The waste shale from mining was deposited in spoil heaps which we can still see the evidence of today on the hills around Rosedale and Bilsdale. 

 

In 1870, large quantities of soft Spanish Jet were imported. The demand for Whitby Jet jewellery had now reached it's peak. The need for the raw material had outstripped the availability and the miners could not accommodate this buoyant market. One of the reasons for the rapid decline of the industry was attributed to the use of this inferior material. The soft Spanish jet was not of the same durability as the hard Whitby Jet and very soon lost its lustre and was very susceptible to hairline cracks. Regardless of this the local miners could not compete with the cheaper foreign imports. 

WHITBY JET TIMELINE

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 however Whitby Jet has had a long and illustrious history that stretches back to the Bronze age.

BRONZE AGE

Whitby jet was the ideal gemstone for bronze age craftsman to work with, a relatively soft stone Jet was easily carved with primitive metal tools. Whitby jet was prized for it’s natural beauty, deep blackness and glossy shine. Evidence of Whitby Jet artefacts are prevalent amongst finds from Bronze age burials. One of the most famous of these is the 4000 year old Poltalloch Jet Necklace {3} found in burial cist in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll. Our own Hal Redvers-Jones and Alec MacKenzie were actually involved in the reconstruction of this necklace, one of the many bronze age finds they have worked on. Other artefacts such as Whitby Jet buttons, beads and conical studs have been found on the moors that surround Whitby. We know that Whitby Jet was of importance to ancient people not just because of it's beauty but because of it's magical status. When rubbed Whitby jet picks up a static charge which attracts dust and small bits of debris to its surface and without any scientific knowledge this led early man to conclude jet had magical properties. It was worn for protection as they believed it drew evil away from the wearer.

2500-800 BC

ROMAN

43–410 AD

The use and popularity of Whitby Jet continued into the Roman era. Eboracum (now known as York) was a city of great importance and many Roman dignitaries were stationed there. The artefacts in Roman coffins found in York reveal a wealth of Whitby Jet jewellery. There was a greater variety of jewellery found than in the Bronze Age. Alongside the usual beads there were also earrings, armlets, bangles, rings and hairpins. During the excavation of the old railway station in York the remains of a Jet workshop was found. This showed tools such a lathe, broken Whitby Jet jewellery pieces and other signs of active manufacturing. Jet artefacts dating from this time can be seen at the Yorkshire museum in York. 

793-1066 AD

VIKING

In the 9th Century AD we see and influx of Viking people to Britain. It was at this time that the Vikings invaded York renaming it Jorvik and making it one of their major trading centres. The Vikings shared the Romans love for Whitby Jet and in the extensive excavations of Viking Jorvik many Viking Jet artefacts were discovered. The Viking’s extensive trading of goods also led to Whitby Jet artefacts being found in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. The artefacts of this time are varied including pendants and amulets, beaded necklaces, rings and non jewellery items such as playing counters and dice. Skilled inlay work was also a popular style - calcium carbonate, tin and yellow orpiment were used for this. One of the most striking artefacts discovered was a cross shaped jet pendant inlayed with four separate concentric circles of yellow orpiment. 

MEDIEVAL

500-1500 AD

Through the Medieval period the type of Whitby Jet artefacts we see changes. This was a period of time punctuated by long stretches of intense and often conflicting religious activity. Whitby and it's famous Abbey were a religious centre and this is reflected in the use of Jet. Whitby Jet was mainly used in ecclesiastical designs and a great quantity of crosses were produced both as jewellery and ornaments, many rings were also made. A 14th century cross 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. Items such as these represent the mysterious and magical properties attributed to Whitby Jet in combination with the importance of religious and Christian symbolism in Whitby at the time.

The first 19th century jet workshop was established in 1808 on Haggersgate, Whitby. This endeavour was initiated by a retired Naval officer, Captain Tremlett, who had an interest in turning Whitby Jet beads as he had seen being done with amber in the Baltic. He engaged the services of a lathe worker Mathew Hill who had never worked with jet before and two other men Robert Jefferson and John Carter. Jefferson and Carter had previous experience of working with jet using files and homemade tools to carve crosses and beads. Their workshop was successful and soon the trade began to grow. In 1851 50 workshops were known of, this would rise to 200 at the height of the jet industry in the 1870's. The rapid increase in trade was fed by the developing railway bringing tourists and holiday makers into the town and allowing jet jewellery produced in Whitby to be exported around the country. Everything from long strings of glittering beads, large ornately carved earrings, cameo brooches, gothic crosses, buttons, rings, large neckpieces and beading work was produced from Whitby Jet. The Great Exhibition in 1851 introduced Whitby jet to the world. The fine craftsmanship and the beauty of the jewellery on display attracted many influential people to begin wearing it, most notably the Empress of France and Queen Victoria. Whitby Jet was a favourite of Queen Victoria and after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 she and (by extension) the whole country entered into a deep period of mourning. During her mourning period Victoria wore exclusively Whitby Jet jewellery which facilitated the trend for Whitby jet to be worn in mourning and established the 'mourning fashion' trend. The decline of the trade began due to the use of imported poor quality Spanish jet which cracked and dulled easily. Fakes and jet 'simulants' such as french jet (black glass), vulcanite, cannel coal, etc. also contributed to this developing bad reputation. Following the death of Queen Victoria and the first world war the association with anything morbid was discarded and Whitby jet fell out of fashion. 1400 men had been working in the jet industry this fell to only 40 by the 1920's and 3 by 1945. The skill and craft of Whitby Jet carving was gradually lost and all of the modern day Jet carvers like ourselves have been self taught. 

To learn about the Victorian craft visit our page about the last remaining Victorian Jet workshop. 

PRESENT DAY

VICTORIAN

1837–1901 AD
2017AD

You can still find genuine Whitby jet jewellery being made in Whitby today, we are proud to say that at Heritage Jet we are keeping this tradition alive! All our jewellery is made from genuine Whitby jet which is collected from the coastline after natural erosion has occurred. We hand carve every piece of our jewellery in our modern workshop which nestles in the heart of old town Whitby, on Church Street. 

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01947 821530

© Heritage Jet 2018