Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Black as Jet

QUESTION: I recently purchased a beautiful shiny black brooch that’s made of a very hard material, almost like stone. I’ve never seen anything like it. Can you tell me what it’s made of and something about it?

ANSWER: It looks like you’ve discovered a piece of Victorian mourning jewelry. One of the primary materials used to make pieces like your brooch was jet, a hard type of coal found along the Yorkshire coast of England.

On December 14, 1861, Queen  Victoria woke to find that her beloved husband, Albert, had died in his sleep of typhoid. Deeply distressed, Victoria went into full mourning and the England, out of respect and love for her, followed her example. An atmosphere of grief permeated English society. It was customary during this time for a widow to remain in full mourning for two years, and then half mourning for six months, but Queen Victoria never stopped grieving.

During the last half of the 19th century in the United States, especially after the Civil War, death was rampant and grief overshadowed both the North and South. More than a million lives were lost. When the war officially ended on April 9, 1865, a crippled nation already reeling  from the devastation of war became shrouded with grief.

Symbolic images of sorrow, love and devotion were the custom at the time. Men and women wore carved and molded pieces of mourning jewelry, an acceptable behavior during the  bereavement period. But by the 1890s, fashion and attitude had lightened, and people tucked the mementos of grief away for posterity.

In the early 1860s, the material of choice for black jewelry was jet, a hard type of lignite coal.  The best jet, found along the rocky Yorkshire shoreline, had a compact mineral structure making it strong enough to withstand carving and turning on a lathe. Jet also retained a high polish and resisted fading. As a result, an industry grew up around the mining and fabrication of jet during the mid-19th century in the small coastal village of Whitby.

At one time, the natural supply of jet was so plentiful that people could find substantial chunks of the shiny black substance washed up along the shore. Eventually however, the supply of true jet dwindled, so a replacement had to be found. Jet miners discovered coal in lower York which they mined from estuary beds where the tide washed into fresh water channels. However, this alternative jet was inferior to the original. It was soft and didn’t respond to carving and polishing as well as the Whitby variety.

The jet industry then turned to other sources for their supplies, importing jet from Spain and Cannel bituminous coal from Scotland to Whitby for use in making mourning jewelry. While these types of coal lacked hardness and luster, both were still better than the coal from southern Yorkshire. Artisans soon began carving jewelry components from these alternatives, and then combined them with decorative components fashioned from true Whitby jet.

When supplies of alternative jet became difficult to come by, fabricators sought other black materials, including black onyx and French jet; also called Vauxhall. Both became equally popular. In reality, French jet and Vauxhall are black glass, and it became an excellent substitute for true jet because it remained shiny and wouldn’t fade. It’s often difficult to tell the difference between authentic and faux jet by sight alone. Handling the materials immediately tells the difference. Black glass is heavy and cold to the touch because it doesn’t conduct heat, whereas true jet is light and room temperature. The details on carved jet items are often clean and sharp, while molded black glass may not be as defined and can also show signs of chipping or flaking.

Jet wasn't the only black colored`natural material that jewelry makers used to carve into mourning items. Bog Oak, a brownish black fossilized peat found deep in the bogs of Ireland,  is dark, lightweight and room temperature. It may appear to have a slight wood grain visible through its matte surface. Jewelry makers also used ebony, the heavy, tight-grained dark wood from the ebonaceae tree, to carve into jewelry items.

But for the Victorians, jet symbolized the deep emotional tie to a loved one through death.


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