Jet or Lignite: Its History in the 1700 and 1800s

Jet was known to ancient people and to the Romans. One Portuguese visitor to Yorkshire in 1730 noted that “jet, geat, or black amber,”[1] as he called it, could be found “in the chinks and clefts of the rocks.”[2] It was, he added, “naturally of a reddish or rusty colour, but when polished, it is a shining black.”[3] Although it might be a shiny black, people in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were apparently unsure whether the lustrous and opaque substance was coal, something like coal, or not coal at all.

Whitby Jet

Sample of Whitby Jet, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One nineteenth-century article noted:

“Jet is generally considered to have been wood, and in many cases it has undoubtedly been so; for the woody structure often remains.”[4]

In fact, lignite, as it was sometimes called, is created from wood, the wood of trees from the family Araucariaceae, which is an ancient family of conifers. It is also not a true mineral, but rather a mineraloid and is considered a minor gemstone. Jet is produced by high pressure decomposition of wood and is found in two forms: hard and soft, with hard lignite occurring with carbon compression and salt water, and soft lignite resulting from carbon compression with fresh water.

Sometimes Cannel-coal was mistaken for jet as it resembled it, but the difference was usually quickly discovered because Cannel-coal split every way, where jet fractured in one particular direction. Additionally, Cannel-coal was found in large pieces but jet was not. Nor could it be formed into large pieces, and, so, “many small pieces, fragments, chips, and dust [were] wasted.”[5] In fact, the largest piece of jet ever found was six feet four inches in length, four and a-half to five and a-half inches wide, and one and a-half thick, weighing eleven pounds and a-half.

Sample of Jet before manufacture

Sample of jet before manufacture. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One form of jet, known as Whitby jet, was considered not only the finest in England but also the finest in the world. It was discovered in the seaside town of Whitby in the county of North Yorkshire. According to D. Tulia Lightfoot in The Culture and Art of Death in 19th Century America:

“Around the turn of the nineteenth century, John Carter, a Whitby innkeeper, and Robert Jefferson, a painter, began making the first necklaces and crosses from local jet. The material had greater tenacity and elasticity than other jet, enabling them to carve pieces with files and knives. Captain Tremlett, a retired seaman, suggested to Carter that he use a lathe to turn the beads, which greatly increased production. Carter found the first Whitby jet workshop in his own house sometime around 1808-10.”[7]

Jet was then introduced to the world at The Great Exhibition of 1851, and by 1872, Whitby trade was well established. The jet found in Whitby was from the early Jurassic period and was a product of fossilized wood from a species similar to the evergreen known as the Monkey Puzzle tree.

Whitby jet was used to create some of the finest articles, including “vases, chains, rings, seals, brooches, taper-stands, and chimney ornaments, with now and then an ambitious attempt at a small bust or a statuette.”[6] Sometimes, brooches, bracelets, lockets, necklaces, or other jet ornaments were created from numerous pieces. To create these pieces, they were “first cemented together, to keep them in their relative positions while being cut and polished.”[8] The pieces were then separated and drilled with holes for the threads or cords required to hold the pieces together permanently. Additionally, small and detached pieces were often made into beads and other small ornaments.

Mourning broach from the eighteen century created from jet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jet is easy to carve but soft: it has an approximate Mohs hardness of 4 compared to a diamond that is 10. The process for the creation of a jet ornament was the same no matter if the ornament was to be large or small. First, it was carefully shaped “into a block or piece approximating … the proper shape.”[9] A type of engraving was then completed before knives, chisels, gouges, and other tools were carefully applied to prevent itt from fracturing, splitting, or chipping. Then, it was ground, which changed the color from brown to a brilliant black, and the polish carried into “all the little nooks and corners of the ornaments. A light rubber, touched with rouge, finishe[d] the operation.”[10]

Nineteenth Century Hat With Jet Ornaments

Nineteenth-century hat with jet ornaments. Author’s collection.

Approximately 20,000 pounds a year of jet was produced in Whitby alone in 1865. It was “sold by the pound, and at … prices [as high] … as ten to eighteen shillings per pound.”[11] To create all the Whitby jet items, men and boys were employed, with the most valuable and desirable workmen being those who could reduce waste. But men and boys were not the only jet workers. John A. Bower noted:

“The packing, arranging, ticketing, and selecting goods, form a good opening for employment for young women; one establishment now employs from twenty to thirty, and it is as remunerative as most occupations for this class of labour.”[12]

Jet - Whitby Mourning Broach that Spells Out V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A Circa 1850, Courtesy of Live Auctioneers

Whitby jet mourning broach that spells out V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A Circa 1850. Courtesy of Live Auctioneers.

Wages used to create the Whitby jet varied. For example, in 1865 “the men earn[ed] from fifteen to twenty shillings a week, the boys from three to five shillings,”[13] with workers earning the higher pay based on their ability to reduce waste. Bower noted that in 1874, Whitby jet wages continued to vary.

“Some idle and careless hands [get] from sixteen shillings to a guinea per week; others earning from thirty to fifty shillings weekly, and the average wages for boys, from twelve to fourteen years, being eight to ten shillings.”[14]

As a gemstone it was particularly fashionable for mourning. It was also associated with mourning jewellery in the 19th century because of its sombre colour and modest appearance, and it has been traditionally fashioned into rosaries for monks. Some of those who wore jet during the 1800s include the French, who wore mourning jewelry made from it after Charles X‘s son, the Duke of Berry was assassinated in 1820. Queen Victoria also wore Whitby jet as part of her mourning dress when mourning the death of Prince Albert after he died at Windsor Castle from typhoid fever at 10:50 p.m. on 14 December 1861. In addition, jet also grew in popularity during the Crimean War in the 1850s and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

References:

  • [1] Chambers, William, etal., Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 42, 1865, p. 24.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 22, 1874, p. 82.
  • [5] Chambers, William, etal., p. 25.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Lightfoot, D. Tulia, The Culture and Art of Death in 19th Century America, 2019, p. 125.
  • [8] Chambers, William, etal., p. 24.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Journal of the Society of Arts, p. 84.
  • [13] Chambers, William, etal., p. 25.
  • [14] Journal of the Society of Arts, p. 84.

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