Whitby Jet, synonymous with Queen Victoria and mourning wear, is a rare fossilised gemstone found along the coast of North Yorkshire.
Most geologists think Whitby Jet is the fossilised remains of a tree, similar to the monkey puzzle tree, while others think it is a mineral deposit like turquoise or a by-product of coal formations.
The northern coastal town of Whitby, located in North Yorkshire, become the centre for turning the gemstone into jewellery and artefacts, which had its heyday during the Victorian era.
Whatever its original origins, jet has been mined and used since the Bronze Age of man through the Victorian era and beyond.
In this article we'll cover:
History of Whitby Jet
Jet is only found along the seven and a half-mile stretch of coastline by the town that bears its name. It was mined from the cliffs and moors of the area and now it can be found along its beaches where anyone can easily pick it up as a souvenir if they are so inclined.
While it 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 for 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.
Birth of an industry
It was the ingenuity of a boat captain, who observed two men in Whitby manufacturing beads and crosses from jet, that made the production of jet easier to do.
While the men, John Carter and Robert Jefferson, used files and handmade implements to work jet, Captain Tremlett, had experience turning amber on a lathe to produce pieces, wondered if the same could be done with jet.
With the help of a turner, Mathew Hill, they successfully lathed jet. Despite Hill's uncertainty about the economic success of the process, the Captain went ahead and hired him as a jet turner.
The first jet workshop in Whitby was set up in John Carter's Haggersgate home in 1808. By 1850, there were more than 50 such workshops existed, producing beads, jewellery and other items.
Imitation jet pieces coming onto the market, combined with cheaper imported pieces, lead to the collapse of the industry by the mid-1900s.
At one point, Whitby Jet production meant work for over 1,400 men and produced an annual profit of over £100,000, which is approximately three million pounds by today's standards.
The industry has experienced a revival of sorts in recent years and new pieces are being produced and sold. There are several websites you can visit to purchase Whitby Jet Jewellery, both modern and vintage era pieces.
The prices on these items, ranging from necklaces to earrings to brooches, start in the hundreds of pounds to the thousands of pounds for pieces from the mid-1800s.
The Victorian era pieces are still beautiful, with their smooth black sheen and buying a piece gives you the chance to wear a unique piece of Whitby history.
We love these beautiful Whitby Jet items on Amazon.
Queen Victoria and the Fossil Coast
Riffing on the link between Queen Victoria and the humble seaside fishing port of Whitby, there are two further connections; tourism and Whitby Jet.
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 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 Queens' beloved husband, Victoria wore a Whitby Jet brooch as part of her mounting dress. The endorsement of a monarch of this Jet black gemstone sealing the fame of this unique and unusual rare stone forever and with it the fortunes of Whitby.
A million-year-old monkey puzzle tree
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 become popular in Roman Britain for jewellery; rings, hairpins, beads, bracelets, bangles, necklaces, and pendants were thought to be produced at York. Examples of Roman Jet Jewellery are displayed at Yorkshire Museum.
Beachcombing was the popular method of discovery of Jet during Roman times, just as it is today.
It was in this way in the early twentieth century that an amateur geologist discovered the oldest dinosaur bone ever found in Britain. Alan Gurr was exploring the coastline between Whitby and Scarborough with his friend, Professor Phil Manning and the Yorkshire Geological Society.
The story goes that Professor Manning described to Alan the ways in which to decipher a fossilised dinosaur bone as ‘rocks with speckles of white calcite in a crunchy bar structure’. With that Alan pointed to behind him to a boulder and said, ‘you mean a bit like that?’
Weighing 15 kilograms and thought to be 176 million years old, the vertebrae has been attributed to a sauropod – similar to a brontosaurus – a dinosaur with a long neck and long tail.
In 1758, Captain William Chapman was blasting for alum in the rocks around Whitby coast when he discovered the skeleton of a prehistoric crocodile, thought to be one of the oldest discoveries of its kind in the region. Teleosaurus chapmani can be found at the British Museum.
These finds at Whitby sparked a great deal of interest in the geologic community and with entrepreneurial quarrymen who soon realised that there was money to be made in fossil hunting.
To protect these rare and historic curiosities the Reverend George Young helped to establish the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society to house these precious items. More commonly know as Whitby Museum, the display of local fossil finds is among the best in the world.
Sir Walter Scott's poem about St Hilda
The final anecdote about Whitby’s fossil hunting legacy involves a poem about St Hilda. Sir Walter Scott penned a verse in the poem Marmion, A Tale of Flodden Field:
How of a thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When holy Hilda prayed.
It is said in ancient legend that St Hilda, in the search to find land for her monastery at Whitby, found a field that was infested with snakes. The legend goes that when she prayed the snakes coiled up into petrified stone and rolled off the cliff to the beach below. It is these ‘coiled snakes' that are so sought after by fossil hunters today.
History is everywhere in Whitby, there are stories around every corner.
The Whitby Jet 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 Whitby 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.
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.
Located at the top of Church Street and at the very foot of the iconic 199 steps, this unique shop boasts possibly the best range of Whitby Jet jewellery in the world.
And what’s more, every piece of exquisite jewellery in the shop is handcrafted in the adjoining workshop by a small number of highly talented craftspeople.
Whitby Jet Jewellery at a glance
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.
It may only be a small detail or you may actually be buying a ‘one of a kind’ piece; either way your piece of Whitby Jet Jewellery will be yours and no one else’s. Now you can’t say that about many types of jewellery can you?
Learn more about buying authentic Whitby Jet with our buyers guide to Whitby jet shops.
It’s impossible to imagine the beauty of Whitby Jet Jewellery from a written description so the best thing to do would be to visit Whitby, wander around the local jet shops and take a look. After all, a picture paints a thousand words and regardless of how well we describe the jewellery created by the Whitby Jet sculptors of today we could never do it justice.
Take a look at some of our favourite pieces on Amazon.
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 buildings new owners, and a personal passion for the curator, Rebecca Tucker.
Home to the worlds largest piece of original Whitby Jet in the rough and many other fabulous and priceless objects.
The Museum of Whitby Jet 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.
Wesley Hall dates back to 1901 when the building was Methodist chapel. The premises was for many years a craft centre with bric a brac stalls though the building began to deteriorate during this period the essential character of the structure remained intact.
In 2015 W Hamond acquired the building and so began a very careful and sympathetic renovation to restore Wesley Hall to its former glory. No expense has been spared in the construction and repair.
Visitors will immediately appreciate the effort, care and attention to detail that has been invested in the restoration of this iconic Whitby landmark.
Improvements made include a wheelchair access ramp to the side of the building, making the Museum of Whitby Jet accessible for all. Once inside there is a stunning spiral staircase providing access to the extensive library and archive of Whitby Jet.
The museum itself is a wonder for jet fans and history buffs alike with the worlds largest collection of antique Whitby Jet and ornaments.
The stunning selection of artefacts and jewellery items are presented in a sparkling showcase that tells the story of the history of Whitby jet from its origins, its heritage to the present day.
Dining at Albert’s Eatery is a unique experience. Meals are served in the main room of the beautifully 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 for 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.
Contact the Museum of Whitby Jet
Phone: +44 1947 667453