Yorkshire Coast Fossils
Quality Fossils & Genuine Whitby Jet Jewellery
Established 1989

About Whitby Jet

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What Is Whitby Jet

Jet is a semi-precious stone which, when polished, takes on an intense waxy lustre of the deepest opaque black
hence the use of the term 'jet-black'` in literature since the eleventh century.
The rich black colour never fades, and the shine which can be achieved is such that polished jet was even used
as mirrors in medieval times.

Jet comprises an unusually pure and hard form of fossilised wood - more specifically an ancient and relatively
abundant species of monkey puzzle tree - which occurs as thin lens-shaped seams within a series of shale
rocks (known as the upper lias) which were laid down in the early Jurassic era some 175-185 million years ago.
After these ancient trees had died and fallen, they would in times of heavy rain and flood often be swept into
swollen rivers. On their way downstream they would be tumbled and battered, with many of the trees being
broken up and/or stripped of their branches.

Upon their eventual arrival at the sea, the by now water-logged timbers would rapidly sink into the black mud
of the sea floor, where they would over subsequent millennia be overlaid with sediments comprised of sand, mud,
and organic remains. It was the accumulated weight of both this sediment and the water overlying it which exerted
the great pressure which, over millions of years and in chemically-complex conditions, resulted in the flattening
and compressing of the wood into jet. It is at this point that a distinction needs to be drawn between 'hard' jet and
'soft' jet; the former being formed in saline and anaerobic conditions, and the latter being formed in more freshwater
and aerobic conditions. Only 'hard' jet proper is suitable for working into jewellery and ornaments, and such finest quality jet occurs only in one specific and particularly tough and compacted layer of the upper lias shales known as
jet-rock.

The ancient lias sea offered precisely the right conditions for the formation of jet, the area of this sea' today corresponds with the area of land encompassed by the North York Moors National Park. Jet not only occurs
beneath much of the Park landscape itself, but - more importantly and accessibly - is also exposed in the cliffs
lying to the north-west and south-east of   the historic fishing town of Whitby in North Yorkshire.
The jet can be found ex situ as small fractured and water-worn pieces, on beaches and trapped amongst foreshore rocks, or less frequently in situ as thin seams within the cliffs themselves. Also preserved in the Upper Lias shales
are the fossilised remains of extinct sea-creatures such as ammonites and belemnites, which, if in close enough proximity, can leave attractive impressions on the underside of the jet itself.

History Of Whitby Jet

Jet has been collected and worked into objects of personal adornment for thousands of years, with beads, buttons, earrings, and belt-sliders having been found in Bronze Age burial sites throughout the UK. Once Bronze Age
craftsmen discovered that the act of polishing jet caused it (by virtue of its electrostatic property) to be able to 'magically' attract chaff, straw, and sawdust to itself, jet became valued not only for personal adornment, but also
as a powerful bringer of good fortune.

The occupying Romans made extensive use of jet during the early part of the first millennium AD, with Roman jet workshops situated in York sending worked jet ornaments and jewellery to all parts of the Roman Empire. After
the Roman armies left in the 4th century AD, Britain entered into the Dark Ages, and was for the next 500 years
under constant attack from invading armies. Although the small scale use of jet continued throughout this troubled period, it was not until the Vikings settled in the 9th century AD that jet once more came to be more widely used for jewellery and small carvings.

Once the invading Vikings had either left, or had settled and become assimilated into the predominantly
Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures, jet was for the next thousand years used mainly for ecclesiastical jewellery such
as crosses, rosaries, and rings. Then, in the early 1800s, the use of jet for jewellery and ornaments began what
would prove to be a dramatic resurgence in popularity which would last until the end of the 19th century.

As jet of the finest quality can only be found near the historic fishing town of Whitby which is situated on the
North Yorkshire coast, it is fitting that Whitby was at the centre of that most remarkable period in the history of
jet, the Victorian era.

Although as many as ten jet workshops were operating in Whitby by 1815, it was not until the mid-1800s that the
jet industry became truly well established, with demand increasing not least due to the opening up of Whitby via
the railway combined with Victorians' love of seaside holiday souvenirs. However, it was the Victorian vogue for
jet mourning jewellery which contributed most significantly to the growth of the Whitby jet industry at this time. Victorian fashion was predominantly class-led, with Queen Victoria herself ultimately setting the example.

Jet has been associated with mourning in the Royal Court since 1830, but it was the deaths of the Duke of
Wellington and Prince Albert in 1852 and 1861 respectively which really stimulated wider public demand for jet mourning jewellery. The Whitby jet industry was at it's height in 1873, at which time approximately 1,500 men were
employed in some 200 manufacturing workshops. Raw jet was not only being avidly collected from local beaches,
but was being commercially excavated at a number of inland locations in the North York Moors area, with mines extending as far inland as Bilsdale and Osmotherly. However, in spite of efforts of miners to procure ever
increasing amounts of raw jet, demand became so great in the 1870s and 80s that some manufacturers resorted to
using inferior 'soft' jet sourced either locally from geological layers in the cliffs other than the jet-rock proper itself,
or from France and Spain.

Items worked from 'soft' jet began to craze and crack soon after they were sold. In addition to such problems
of quality control, fashions in the latter part of the 19th century - particularly the Art Nouveau 'naughty nineties - dictated the wearing of  much smaller pieces of jewellery.

"Black As Jet"
"Ah! Black as jet, but long ago
Indignity and lace,
The Ladies wore around their necks
A flash of ebon grace.
But oh! To-day Great Broughton mourns,
Still waves the merry corn,
The beer flows at Jet Miners' Inn,
But jet's no longer worn.
Still, fashions change, mayhap some day
Again the craft will thrive,
And Yorkshire jet will ring the earth,
Black, flashing and alive." 

 


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