What is Whitby Jet?
Unlike most gemstones, Whitby Jet is actually fossilised wood, similar to our present day Monkey Puzzle or Araucaria Tree (Pic 1). which has been compressed over millions of years.
The colour of Whitby Jet is unique; its blackness is so intense that the expression ‘as black as jet' has been a commonly used phrase for hundreds of years. It is smooth and very lightweight; a characteristic that enables even the most lavish designs to be worn in comfort, and it can take on an extremely high polish to the extent that it could even be used as a mirror.
Where is it found?
Jet has been found in many countries world-wide, including China, Siberia and the USA, to name but a few. It has also been found in other European countries including Germany and Spain. But the finest quality Jet has always come from England, around the north-east coast of Yorkshire (Pic 2), which is where W Hamond source all their raw gemstone material.
Most frequently found in seams of shale between Robin Hood's Bay and Boulby (Pic 3). In addition to the distinctive shale or 'Jet line' which appears above sea level (Pic 4), the seams extend under the sea and pieces often break away in bad weather to be washed up on to the shore.
It has never been permitted to mine for the gem material, though it was accepted practice, in the Victorian era, to dig deep into the cliff faces to extract it. Once the section of cliff had been exhausted of the gemstone, the Jet workers would ensure their excavations were re-filled (Pic 5). In higher and more inaccessible areas of the cliff face, young men were lowered on ropes to carry out this work, a task made all the more dangerous by the fact that the cliffs are mostly shale and therefore very unstable.
A gemstone famed by Royalty
With new rail links to Whitby, the town became a very popular seaside holiday destination for early Victorians for whom a souvenir piece of Jet was a must. As the century progressed, fashions changed and clothing became heavier and more voluminous – particularly with the crinolines of the time – and these fuller designs required larger more eye-catching jewellery to match. Whitby Jet's lightweight characteristics made it the perfect choice for large accessories – even the largest pieces could be worn in comfort.
In 1851, Whitby Jet was exhibited at the Great Exhibition, London and soon became coveted by a number of high profile royal persons including the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France. But Whitby Jet's most prolific patron was to become Queen Victoria.
When her beloved Albert died in 1861, Victoria took to wearing Jet jewellery in remembrance of him – and it soon became the etiquette to accessorise the period's elegant mourning fashion with jewellery made from the gemstone. So much so, that the only jewellery allowed to be worn in court during the period was Whitby Jet. It was at this time that James Storr established his very own Jet Jewellery boutique and W Hamond first opened its doors to the many fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the period.
The world's largest Whitby Jet gemstone
With an unrivalled 150 year history working with Whitby Jet jewellery, W Hamond is not only famed for the delicate, hand crafted jewellery collections displayed within the boutique’s cabinets. The company is also the proud owner of the world’s largest Whitby Jet gemstone (part of which is pictured opposite with W Hamond’s team of retro Victorian Jet workers).
In what is a truly spectacular piece of natural gem quality stone, W Hamond’s record breaking Whitby Jet gemstone is a staggering 21ft in length. 180 million years in the making, this fabulous and truly unique example of Whitby Jet can be seen in W Hamond’s Whitby boutique, and a viewing is highly recommended as part of any visit to the town.
1. The Araucaria (or Monkey Puzzle) Tree
2. Whitby Jet originates from nearby coastal cliffs
3.The end of a Whitby Jet seam deep inside the cliff face
4.A distinctive shale or 'Jet line' on the cliff face.
5. A filled victorian excavation
6. W Hamond employees recreate a bygone era as they hold part of the World's largest Whitby Jet gemstone.