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.