Victorian jewelry encompasses the better part of a century’s jewels. The term Victorian corresponds to the reign (1837-1901) of the English Queen Victoria. Jet jewelry became popular during the Victorian era because Queen Victoria wore it after her husband’s death in the latter part of her reign. Jet, however, has been popularly mined since the Bronze Age and used to make beads or other jewels. The English coastal town of Whitby and its jet stores was the most popular source of jet and had been mined there extensively since the time of the Romans.
Jet is considered to be a minor gemstone. It is an organic mineraloid and is black or sometimes dark brown. Jet may also feature pyrite inclusions in its composition which produces a brass or metallic sheen. Essentially, jet is wood that has decomposed under pressure over a period of millions of years. Jet is found in both hard and soft varieties. Good quality jet was used to create jewelry for thousands of years. At the height of jet’s popularity during the Victorian age, there were roughly two hundred workshops producing jet jewelry and other ornamental items.
During the Victorian period jet was the main material used for mourning jewelry because of its somber and reserved appearance. Of course, before Queen Victoria began to wear it for mourning jewelry it was already popular as a jewelry material—it had been for thousands of years. During the nineteenth century jet was fashioned into jewels in all popular styles of the period. The best jewels were typically those free of cracks and rendered into artistically fine pieces crafted by artisans. The surface of the jet item might be carved, finely polished, or faceted.
Victorian jet jewelry encompasses an immense variety of necklaces, brooches, bracelets, earrings, and rings. Hair ornaments could also be fashioned from jet as well as buttons. Although jet has been associated with mourning during the Victorian period, it was frequently formed into sober jewels, but many pieces of jet jewelry were highly ornate and elaborate in accordance with the style of the period. For example, a brooch might feature a large cabochon of jet encircled by several rows of jet beads and may be completed with a chandelier effect—dangling medallions of carved or faceted pieces of jet.
Cameos were popular Victorian jewels and there were many made from jet and carved with typical Victorian motifs—flowers or beautiful faces. Earrings might feature finely wrought jet beads or showcase a carved jet bird or floral motif. Necklaces from chokers to lariats featured shiny rows of jet. Bracelets might be comprised of jet squares carved individually in various designs. Although the jet jewelry craze peaked in the 1870s, jet jewelry from the Victorian period is quite collectible—especially those pieces exhibiting best quality jet and workmanship.