When you visit Whitby you will notice Whitby jet jewellery adorning the shop windows, but what is Whitby jet? Here's all you need to know.
I love nothing more than admiring the different jet shop windows whilst wandering down Church Street. When I first visited I couldn't help but wonder, what actually is Whitby jet? I wanted to learn more about its history. We have put together this article so you have one place to learn all about the jet industry in Whitby.
What is Whitby jet?
Most geologists agree that jet is a fossilised Araucaria tree. The result of millions of years of compression of decomposed wood similar in type to Chile pine or Monkey Puzzle. A precursor to coal, jet is warm to the touch and comes in hard or soft form – hard if found near saltwater, soft if close to freshwater. The jet discovered at Whitby is of the Jurassic age, approximately 182 million years in the making.
Found in the debris from fallen cliffs and across the North York Moors, Whitby jet is of the finest in the world and has the reputation as the ‘gold standard’ in jet. Jet has been mined and used since the Bronze Age. Whitby became the centre for turning the gemstone into jewellery and artefacts, which had its heyday during the Victorian era.
History of Whitby jet
Jet has a long history, the pinnacle of its use was in Victorian England when it was fashioned into black jewellery that became popular for mourning the death of a loved one and as a fashion item. During the peak of production, there were about 200 shops in Whitby fashioning jet jewellery. However, there are pieces of jewellery and artefacts that have been found dating back to the Roman Empire.
At the sight of an old railway station excavation in York, a coffin, found to hold the remains of a Roman woman, revealed her hair held back by pins made from jet. A monastery in Saxon, Streanaeshalch, revealed pieces of Whitby jet jewellery and literary evidence of jet made into beads, rings and crosses that the monks had worn. Vikings fashioned jet into crosses, one of which had been unearthed in York. A chess piece, also believed to be of Viking origin, was found as well.
Queen Victoria and the Fossil Coast
It is in no small way that Whitby came to prominence during the reign of Victoria. Leisure time for the Victorians was a revolutionary concept and consequently, spa towns appeared across the country. Whitby became an instant hit, visited by tourists seeking a breath of sea air and a stroll along the promenade.
The link to Queen Victoria and the world-famous jet industry is the thing that put Whitby on the map. In 1861 at the funeral of Albert, the Queen's beloved husband, Victoria wore a Whitby jet brooch as part of her mourning dress. The endorsement of a monarch sealed the fame of this unique and unusual rare stone forever and with it the fortunes of Whitby.
The jewellery industry
The Whitby jet jewellery industry dates back to the early 1800s when a retired naval officer known as Captain Tremlett decided there was money to be made from the gemstone. Captain Tremlett noticed two locals, one of which was a popular publican John Carter, making small crosses and beads from locally found jet.
Wanting to cut down the amount of time it took to fashion the little beads, Tremlett asked the local lathe worker, Mathew Hill, to create a range of beads using his lathe…a request that ultimately led to the start of the jet industry in Whitby.
By 1850 the area boasted over 50 workshops employing a total of 1400 men.
The quality of the jet pieces being made in Whitby became a talking point across the country, and as a result, countless Victorian ladies travelled to the area simply so that they could adorn themselves with a piece of Whitby jet.
The great exhibition
One of the most talented jet sculptors of the time, Issac Greenbury, took his creations to London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 where he managed to secure numerous orders for commission pieces that can still be seen around the world today.
During the late 1800s, the East Cliff was awash with small, family-run shops and studios whereas the West Cliff was home to the large manufacturers. As a town industry, jet created an annual turnover equivalent to around £3 million today (at its peak) and continued to be incredibly lucrative until the 1st World War demanded the attention of the jet workers.
Whitby jet jewellery today
Today, there are still several Whitby jet Shops in the area although nothing like the numbers seen in the 1800s. One jewellery shop that has truly stood the test of time is that of W.Hamond, the original Whitby jet jeweller established in 1860.
The range of jewellery pieces available is immense. During the 1900s the gemstone was most commonly associated with memorial jewellery, simply because of its intense black colour, but today all kinds of pieces exist that are perfect for any occasion. Whether you’re looking for something simple, such as a solid jet heart necklace, or you’re after something a bit more intricate for a special occasion then you’re sure to be able to find it in Whitby.
Taking a quick glance at W.Hamond’s website it’s easy to see that jet has successfully been incorporated into necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, brooches and watches using a range of precious metals. You can choose from silver, gold, white gold, rose gold or platinum, and even find pieces of jewellery with additional gemstones included as well. In fact, it’s safe to say that every piece of Whitby jet jewellery handcrafted in a local workshop will be unique in some way.
W Hamond Museum of Whitby jet
Visit the Museum of Whitby Jet for an exciting exploration of the fantastic world of Whitby jet. It’s fun for the whole family and presents the history of the industry alongside famous artefacts in a stylish and beautiful display. It’s open now and is free to visit.
Midway along Church Street, directly opposite New Way Ghaut, stands a majestic building that houses a regal history that dates back hundreds of years. Restoration of Wesley Hall, home to the brand new Museum of Whitby jet, has been a labour of love for the building's new owners, and a personal passion for the curator, Rebecca Tucker. It is home to the world's largest piece of original Whitby jet in the rough and many other fabulous and priceless objects.
The Museum stands as a testament to the long history and importance of jet in the region and also as a centrepiece and celebration of the thriving industry that finds its home in the heart of this historic town. The visitor centre is open to the public seven days a week and provides a complete education on the history of Whitby Jet, the legacy of Queen Victoria and the role of the Victorian era in creating the popularity and desire for this delightful and rare gem.
Dining at Albert’s Eatery is a unique experience. Meals are served in the main room of the beautiful Wesley Hall so you’ll likely find yourself enjoying a delicious local delicacy while admiring the world’s largest piece of Whitby jet. The restaurant specialises in local seafood, with trained chefs delivering the finest traditional dishes prepared with the best quality ingredients.
Choose from a carefully created menu that packs a punch with classic Whitby seafood made from the local catch. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner you’re sure to enjoy the atmosphere in Albert’s. Albert’s has a fully licensed bar open throughout the day so pop in for a drink and a sandwich and watch the world go by in the splendour of the Wesley Hall and the magnificent collection of Whitby jet.
Booking is recommended during peak season, to avoid disappointment.
So there you go, that's all you need to know about Whitby jet! It's a beautiful gemstone with an interesting history and a great way to take home a little piece of Whitby with you. Let us know whether you own any jet jewellery in the comments.