Jet – Mourning the Popularity of this Organic Gemstone

Jet is an organic gemstone that was made popular by Queen Victoria and is mainly found in Whitby, England.  This black opaque gemstone is used mainly for mourning jewellery.  Who would image that something made of approximately 75% carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur would have been a popular gemstone for jewellery!

Victorian Jet Brooch

Flickr Photo by Nic_Hallford

What is Jet?

Jet is primarily carbon, with oxygen, hydrogen and sulphur, there are also traces of
other elements such as nitrogen, iron and copper.  Jet is often refered to as fossilized wood. It comes from a single species of tree, which is related to our modern Araucaria or monkey puzzle. This species of tree existed in the Jurassic period (146-208 million years ago) and no longer exists. As jet is formed from a living plant it is considered an organic gemstone.  Until the early 20th century it was called black amber, mainly because samples developed an electrostatic charge when rubbed, like amber.

Where Can I See Excellent Specimens of Jet and Jet Jewellery?

One of the most important collections of jet is found in the Whitby Museum, but good examples can also be seen in the Yorkshire Museum, Castle Museum and Jorvik in York, in the Victorian Jet Works Museum in Whitby, in the Sheffield City Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the Akiba Museum in Japan. Other Museums in Yorkshire and abroad may have one or two isolated examples as well.

Jet Mourning Brooch

Photo by Detlef Thomas

Jet in England is found in Yorkshire, at the seaside town of Whitby.   It is found along a section of the coast and is found throughout the North York Moors.   Jet has been mined in Whitby  since roman times (beads and carvings).  Whitby is famous for the manufacture of jet jewellery.  At its height in the 19th century the jet jewellery industry was a major employer in the region.  There were finders, carvers and polishers.  Over one hundred workshops were producing items from jet.  There were over two hundred miners and 1,500 other workers in Whitby in 1873.

English jet became famous due to its use as mourning jewellery.  Queen Victoria  remained in permanent mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861.  She wore jewellery made of jet because of its intense black colour.  If the Queen wore jet jewellery, then the fashion for the ladies of the day was to wear black jewellery.

This suite of jet mourning jewellery is found at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Jet at National Museum Scotland

Flickr photo by justified sinner

If the fashion is for ladies to wear jewellery with jet and they cannot afford jet, what will they use?

Common Imitations of Jet are Horn, Bog Oak, Vulcanite (Ebonite), Plastics and Glass

These common imitations of jet are all black but they are not produced in the same way as jet.  Jet is carved, originally by knives, saws and files.  In the 1800’s mechanical means were developed to carve and polish jet.  Jet has a high black lustre, but not as shiny and reflective as glass.

A streak test can be used to differentiate between jet and its imitations.  The item is scratched across a piece of unglazed porcelain.  Jet will leave a brown mark (streak).  Coal will leave a black mark.  Another possibly destructive test is to use a red hot needle on some inconspicuous part of the item.  Jet will emit a coal-burning smell, be very careful not to destroy or damage the item,  jet will burn.

Horn has a duller luster than jet and sometimes the colour wears off.  It is pressed as opposed to carved, has a grey streak and will emit a burning hair smell if touched by a hot needle.

Bog Oak is the term given to peat-impregnated woods such as oak, fir, pine and yew that have been buried in peat bogs, for as long as 10,000 years.  It has a distinct visible wood structure, is dark brown in colour and is generally carved in Irish themes such as harps, shamrocks and castles.

Vulcanite/Ebonite is black vulcanized (hardened)  rubber and doesn’t have the sheen of real jet and in time turns from black to brown/khaki in colour.  When touched with a hot needle, ebonite will emit the odor of burning rubber.  Ebonite may leave a brown streak like jet.

Plastic will show mould marks, indicating how it was produced.  The streak is grey and the smell from a hot needle will be a definite plastic odour.

Glass (sometimes called “French Jet“) is heavy and cold to the touch and has a ‘glaring’ reflection.  It will not react to a hot needle test.  Edges are moulded and therefore not sharp like the edges of carved jet.

Jet is found near the coast in the vicinity of Whitby, Yorkshire, England;  Languedoc, France;  Oviedo (formerly Asturias), Oviedo Province, Spain; Turkey;  El Paso County, Colorado.  Jet can be Canadian jet – jet from Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Video Showing a Large Piece of Jet and the Whitby Coast Where Jet is Found

Your Input

(Join our poll or Scroll Down To The Bottom and leave a comment) – Emerald is winning the poll!

Victorian horn and jet bracelet

Flickr Photo by Nic_Hallford

I plan to introduce different gemstones alphabetically.  I will start with “A” (Ammolite) and see where it leads me.  Leave a comment and let me know if you have a favourite gemstone that starts with the letter “J”.  Take the poll!  Can you name a reference to a gemstone in a song, movie or book?


About Jen McKercher

Jennifer McKercher teaches gemmology at the Canadian Gemmological Association. A passion for gemstones drives Jen to learn as much as she can about the wonders of gemstones and how they enhance our lives.

Posted on September 22, 2011, in Individual Gemstones, Organic Gemstones and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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