Dark, mysterious, mesmerising… the precious gem that has fascinated generations of collectors
Sounding like a cross between a thoroughbred racehorse and a rip-roaring supercar, Whitby Jet has mesmerised and fascinated mankind since its discovery in early pre-history through to the present day. Dark and mysterious, the gleaming black-velvet fossil is about 180 million-years-old and emerged from the cliffs of the North Yorkshire seaside town and has been skillfully transformed into items of beauty, such as brooches, lockets and earrings. Because of its deep black colour and difficulty in working, Whitby Jet pieces have become increasingly collectable and much sought-after. The fossil derives from one ancient species of tree called Araucaria Araucana which sank into the seabed millions of years ago in the Jurassic period. This explains why jet feels so light because it is wood not stone. The hardest, purest, saltwater jet comes from the seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of coast around Whitby.
Whitby Jet achieved its height of fashion during the Victorian era, popularised by Queen Victoria when she wore it in mourning following the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Her royal patronage greatly increased demand for the gem. Whitby became something of a tourist destination with fashionable Crinoline-clad ladies of the period buying pieces of handmade jewellery as a souvenir of their visit. At its zenith in the early 1870s there were about 200 manufacturing shops and 1,500 people employed in the trade in and around Whitby. The style for fuller dresses so beloved of the Victorian, led to larger pieces of jewellery being produced. Whitby Jet was the ideal material given its distinctive colour yet very lightweight nature. A wealth of designs was created by the town’s workshops ranging from delicate florals to mythical and classic motifs. Facetted beads and bold geometric shapes were also popular at the time. Whitby Jet has been used to make jewellery and body adornment for thousands of years right up to the present day. It can be turned on a lathe but it cannot be mass-produced. Consequently it has never been cheap. This, combined with its rarity value makes it attractive for collectors – and celebrities. It has been worn in movies by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, and three years ago the gem was seen teamed with diamonds on the red carpet in a stunning spider and cobweb dress worn by Donna Air for the premier of The Amazing Spiderman.