If you think of Whitby jet as a sombre stone of grief, you’re not alone. Since the death of Prince Albert on this day in 1861, jet has been associated with the mourning jewellery worn by his devastated widow, Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her long life – which, in Victorian times, meant dressing only in black. Jet – especially Whitby jet – with its dark intensity and lustrous finish, was an appropriate gemstone for this sad, subdued and reflective time.
Overlooking the town of Whitby, North Yorkshire, UK – Whitby Abbey in the distance
Jet is a gemstone with so much more potential than mourning jewellery, however. I think that it deserves to be as popular as it was in its Victorian heyday. Nicknamed ‘black diamond’ for its high lustre, jet is an organic gemstone created when decaying wood is subjected to extreme pressure over millions of years. It’s found in lots of countries, including China, Siberia, Germany and Spain, but the world’s finest quality jet comes from a group of rocks called the Mulgrave Shale Member of the Whitby Mudstone Formation in the quaint North Yorkshire town of Whitby in the North East of England.
Kim Rix, holding one of the largest pieces of Whitby Jet ever found. With Sarah Steele at Ebor Jetworks Museum.
Queen Victoria’s preference for jewellery made with Whitby jet sparked a rush to sink mines in the area. At the height of jet’s popularity, there were up to 300 jet mines in North Yorkshire. None remain as jet mining is now illegal. Traces of the old mines can still be seen, though it is illegal to remove jet from them and highly dangerous even to enter. Jet is still there for the finding on Whitby’s beaches, as long as you don’t go clambering for it on the treacherous cliffs.
Victorian jewellery made from Jet. Brooch and earrings in their original box.
For the final research stages of my book for Great Britain, due out in 2021, I have just visited the Ebor Jetworks and met up with Sarah Caldwell Steele, the UK’s foremost expert in Whitby jet and a huge fan of this intriguing gemstone. We talked about the best places to hunt for jet and how to tell it apart from other imposters that are often mistaken for Whitby’s ‘black diamond.’
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Kim Rix GG GIA
Be sure. Be smart. Buy with confidence