Gem-grade jet has been prized since prehistoric times. Jet is made from fossilized organic matter–ancient wood dating to roughly a million years ago. Because it was once living, it is deemed a ‘mineraloid’ and boasts a hardness of 3-4 on the Mohs scale of hardness. Jet has sometimes been called ‘black amber,’ a term used by the Vikings. The world’s most revered jet hails from the British town of Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. This seaport became famous, even during the Roman period, for its jet industry and celebrated jet artisans who created everything from beads to prized jewels from local jet.
Jet was popular throughout history particularly for its extraordinary rich black color. Ancient Romans asserted that jet had the ability to ward off the evil eye while the Greeks believed that wearing amulets made from gleaming jet could bring them good fortune and prosperity. Other people thought jet had the power to heal or connect people to the divine. These folkloric beliefs were behind the mineraloid’s popularity and supported its continued use. Jet reached its artistic zenith during the reign of Victoria who favored its use after the death of her husband Prince Albert. Consequently, during the modern period jet has often been regarded as a funerary gem and it often adorned the bereaved as their only ornament during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Of course, jet’s polished black color also made it a favorite material for beads which were worn in long strands during the Art Deco years. Many manufacturers during the modern era tried to create synthetic or even glass jet as Whitby’s supplies dwindled. While Whitby is still known for its artisans, the jet industry has shrunk considerably. Even so, vintage jet pieces are highly collectible and revered for their artistry.
As an art medium, jet was used extensively to make jewelry. Beads were carved and even faceted by hand. Jet brooches, hair ornaments, and pendants were crafted by the artisans of Whitby as well as in other world-wide locations that had stores of jet like the American Southwest, Nova Scotia, and other areas of Europe. Due to its relative softness, jet was carved for cameos and also other objects like small birds, for instance, which could be worn as amulets or featured in an earring design.
Jet jewelry from historic periods features an extensive array of designs and the material has been featured in every type of jewelry ranging from necklaces to rings. Though primarily associated with jewels, jet was sometimes used to make vases or small trinket-like items like carved animals or jewel boxes. Largely replaced in modern jewelry design by onyx or glass, jet is still revered for its inherent beauty and illustrious past.