Imagine you are walking along a beach in Whitby in England. You are kicking stones and looking at the beautiful scenery when you notice that some of the stones are unusually dark in colour. In fact they are almost black, but they aren’t like the shiny black pebbles you find in other places. You’re curious about whether this could be the famous Whitby Jet you have heard about, but it doesn’t look very much like the beautiful stone you saw in the museum and for sale in the shops!
When I took these jet earrings to show the children, they were intrigued. They assumed that the stone was a type of plastic or glass because they had not seen such a beautiful, shiny black in other jewellery made with precious or semi-precious stones. When they discovered that the earrings were made with not just any stone, but an ancient, fossilized wood, they were even more interested. As one child said, ‘who knew that old wood could be so pretty’
Jet is a product which is created from wood which decomposed millions of years ago. Over time the wood is compressed and becomes a stone. It is quite easy to carve, but also very easy to damage or even shatter when it is being shaped so people who could work with jet were highly skilled and the things they made were expensive and a sign of wealth. Not all jet is the same though and the best quality jet, and indeed the most famous, comes from Whitby in England.
Jet has been used to make jewellery for many years, dating right back to the ancient world. In fact, it is one of the earliest stones to be used in creating jewellery. Carved pieces of jet in the shape of insects and animals have been found which date right back to the Stone Age. These carved animals are thought to have been worn as pendants as many of them had holes drilled in them. It was during the Bronze Age though that jet really began to be used widely and many burials from this time contain jet beads. Many of the beads appear to have originally come from Whitby, but they are found a long way from the town, so it is thought that there was a trade in mining and selling jet even in the ancient world! Over time, jet continued to be used for making items, particularly jewellery. In England examples of jet jewellery have been found dating the time of the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings amongst others. It was also famously popular as a material to be used in mourning outfits in the Victorian era with jet being used for buttons, jewellery and beading on clothing.