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The Jet Set



Celebrities set fashions. That was as true in the nineteenth century as it is in the twenty-first. Back then, perhaps the biggest celebrity of all was a woman: Queen Victoria. She came to the throne in 1837 and spent many years happily married to Prince Albert. She was popular with her subjects and had a large and healthy family.

But tragedy waited. In 1861 she experienced the worst day of her life: Prince Albert died of typhoid. Victoria was stricken with grief and began forty years of mourning. She dressed entirely in black and began to wear jewellery carved from a black stone called jet. The nation was watching and jet became even more fashionable. Ironically, Prince Albert himself had helped make it popular, because he had overseen the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

The exhibition was a chance for jet-carvers from the seaside Yorkshire town of Whitby to show their product to the world. Jet is actually a fossilized form of wood and it has been collected on the Yorkshire coast for thousands of years. It’s hard, tough and takes a high polish, so in the hands of a skilful craftsman it can be turned into objects of great beauty.

In prehistoric times, jet was often carved into beads for necklaces. It was likely seen as having magical or protective powers, because, like amber, it becomes charged with static electricity when rubbed and will attract dust and hair. Then came the Roman invasion of Britain and jet began to be used for more complex items, including rings, bracelets and pendants. It was collected on the coast, then taken to York, or Eboracum as it was then called, for working into jewellery.

From Eboracum it was exported all over the Roman empire. But the jet trade collapsed when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the fifth century. It revived a little in the Middle Ages, when jet was used for religious jewellery like crosses. In the nineteenth century, the trade began to flourish again. A new middle class was rising, anxious to display its good taste and refinement, particularly at times of mourning. Jet wasn’t showy or colourful, so it was perfectly suited for mourning jewellery.

When Queen Victoria began to wear jet, its popularity increased even further and already high prices began to rise. Whitby was now home to many busy jet-carvers and their best work is still admired and avidly collected, often selling for large sums at auction. But jet has always been expensive: carving it demands great skill and care, so Victorian jet-carvers could command high wages and their work sold at high prices.

Those who liked the look of jet but couldn’t afford to buy it naturally sought alternatives, like black glass, onyx and vulcanite. The Victorian jet-set must have looked down on these imitations, but jet-imitations are also collected today. Whatever it is made of, there is still a lot of Victorian mourning jewellery to collect. Like Queen Victoria, many women lost their husbands early in life and began to follow the rules of mourning, which stated that a widow had to wear black for a full year after her loss.

Victoria never broke her mourning, creating the image of herself as the “Widow in Black”. That image has lasted to our own day, but if you look more carefully at some of her photographs you will see the gleaming black of beautiful jewellery, carved in Whitby from Yorkshire jet.

National Federation of Funeral Directors