Black as jet

Jet working atelier, Whitby, UK (photograph Shelley Anderson).

Jet working atelier, Whitby, UK (photograph Shelley Anderson).

TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson writes about her recent visit to Whitby, England:

Whitby is a small fishing village on England’s northeastern coast. It’s famous for its ruined abbey and for the fact that it is mentioned in Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula. I was there for neither ruins nor vampires. Whitby is also famous for its jet, a black gem stone that has been used for jewellery since the Bronze Age.

Jet is a fossilized wood, made from the Araucaria tree (a relative of today’s monkey puzzle tree) during the Jurassic period. Jet is found in several places around the world, including northern Spain and southwestern Turkey (in fact, the Romans called the gem stone gagates, from the Gages river in Turkey). Jet from Whitby is considered among the highest quality anywhere. It is also increasingly scarce. The jet mines have been closed and it’s illegal to hack at any seams found in the beach cliffs. Jet workers now comb the beach along a particular seven and a half mile stretch of the North Yorkshire coastline to look for the gem stone.

I was in Whitby looking for jet jewelry for my own small collection, and for some Victorian jet buttons for the TRC’s button reference collection. There are dozens of shops selling jet jewelry, especially on the narrow Church Street. If you are interested in the history of jet, it’s better to go to a shop where jet is still being made into jewelry, rather than a shop that simply sells jet jewelry. I had some very good conversations in several of the former, including the jet shops One O Five and the Black Market.

Pair of earrings made of silver and jet, The Netherlands, 1930s (TRC 2018.1682).

Pair of earrings made of silver and jet, The Netherlands, 1930s (TRC 2018.1682).

Jet buttons, I learned, are fragile. In addition to the normal wear and tear on any fastening, jet buttons had another risk factor—in the first half of the nineteenth century holes were drilled directly into the buttons. During the latter half of the century, when Victorians began a craze for jet mourning jewellery, brass shanks were attached to the jet buttons, reducing Read more...their fragility somewhat.

I learned this at the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, a small 250-year old shop run by master jet carver Hal Redvers-Jones and his daughter Imogen. While Imogen pulled examples of special commissions to show me from behind the counter, her father worked in the corner. “We get orders from all over the world. This,” she said, pulling out a late nineteenth/early twentieth century collar stud, “is from a pastor in the US. He wanted us to make a collar stud with jet for his clerical collar. I said we’d be happy to, but that we’d need an illustration, as I’d never seen a collar stud before. So he sent us one.” They would be happy to make the TRC some replica Victorian buttons, based on old designs from their collection of sample books. But they would have to be made with silver “because no one works in brass these days.”

The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre is also interesting because they house the only Victorian-age jet workshop still intact. This was discovered in 1977 in a disused Whitby attic, and reinstated in the Centre. In the 1870s there were over 200 shops employing some 1,500 men, women and children making and selling jet jewelry. The industry declined in the early twentieth century when fashions changed, but a love for the stone and for the craft still endures.

Shelley Anderson, Saturday 21st July 2018

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TRC in a nutshell

Hogewoerd 164, 2311 HW Leiden. Tel. +31 (0)71 5134144 / +31 (0)6 28830428   info@trc-leiden.nl

Opening times: Monday to Thursday: 10.00-16.00 hrs, other days by appointment.

Bank account number: NL39 INGB 0002 9823 59

Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome !

Current exhibition: For a few sacks more ...., until 28th June

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Donations

The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
 
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