Sometimes I wonder at the things we humans deck ourselves with. Diamonds, for which I would sell my very soul, are a form of carbon: the hardest, densest form, with the most closely packed atoms and the highest melting point of any substance. (I’ve written about diamonds here and here.) But way down at the other end of the hardness scale lies diamond’s carbon cousin, the black gemstone called jet.
Jet is fossilized coal. Specifically, it’s fossilized lignite, the soft brown coal that burns with the least amount of heat. While a diamond is pure carbon, jet is mostly carbon, sixty to seventy percent—the product of wood decaying under extreme pressure for a very long time. The famous jet found near Whitby, England, is over 180 million years old.
What I’m trying to say is that jet is not really a stone. It’s organic. A diamond was a mineral to start with, but jet was a plant. Jet is one of just two organic gems, the other one being amber, which I wrote about here. (Pearls are also considered organic gems, but they’re formed differently, in a process that takes weeks or months rather than eons.)
Jet comes from the wood of ancient pine trees; amber comes from the sap. Both substances, taken from the ground and polished, are wonderful to hold: smooth, warm, and strangely light. Both can give off a static charge when rubbed, though I’ve never made this happen. Both are soft, around 2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. And both have been worn by humans for thousands of years.
Ancient Romans thought jet was magical, suitable for amulets to ward off the evil eye. In Third Century Roman Britain, Whitby jet was fashioned into necklaces, rings, bracelets, hairpins, you name it. But it was Queen Victoria, that alpha 19th Century trendsetter, who gave it its greatest popularity, as mourning jewelry.
Mourning was no small matter in Victorian England. When a family member passed away, everyone in the household (including servants, if there was money enough) had to wear black for at least a year, after which they were allowed to inch back toward color with touches of gray and lavender. (Children mourning for other children, however, often wore white.) Mourning etiquette went into overdrive when Victoria was widowed in 1861. She draped herself in voluminous black and wore it for the rest of her life—another forty years. Her jewelry was also black, and it was made of Whitby jet, which became the only ornament allowed in her court. Soon, women all over the country were wearing it.
Whitby jet really does make fantastic mourning jewelry. It’s the blackest, hardest jet and takes the highest polish. So it added a bit of gleam to Victorian mourning costumes, which were made from matte fabrics. Being lightweight, it could be made into larger, more impressive pieces, like the carved necklace and bracelet in the photo above.
But Whitby jet had to be worked by hand and was not inexpensive. Cheaper substitutes arose, including bog oak, a fossilized wood from Ireland. Bog oak was more brown than black and had a matte finish, but it could be molded and mass produced. French jet, used in many an ornament, was actually glass. Black and sparkly, it was much heavier than jet, and colder, too—nowhere near as comforting to wear. (A rundown of various materials used in mourning jewelry can be found here.)
I have to confess that jet jewelry doesn’t speak to me. But it speaks to my friend Iris, who was born in England and has always loved it, and I’ve bought a number of pieces for her over the years. Nowadays, a cursory Google search will turn up lots of jet jewelry for sale, old and new. But I used to love coming across it by chance at antique shows, where I could hold it in my hands before buying it. Much of the pleasure of jet is in the holding.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I found the earrings above, for example—real Victorian stunners. The pair weighs just 9 grams, so they don’t do violence to the earlobes. Cut and polished as they are, they have a muted sparkle, which is exactly what mourning jewelry should have. But they also look right in modern-day New York.
So does the necklace above, which has that same subdued sparkle. These beads are Victorian, but flappers in the 1920s also loved to wear long jet necklaces, which could be flung about on the dance floor without causing injury. By the 20s, though, a lot of ‘jet’ beads were made of plastic.
The carved jet beads below are Chinese, probably from around 1900 but maybe later. I bought them for myself, but couldn’t look at them without thinking that they really should belong to Iris. So she has them now.
But I do own jet, in the form of fetishes—the small spirit animals carved by the Zuni tribe in the American Southwest. Jet is mined there, and I can think of no better material for carving, say a crow:
In traditional Zuni medicine, crows and ravens are messengers of healing, symbols of higher consciousness.
Just yesterday, I looked at the shelf above my writing desk and saw this tiny jet mouse:
The mouse scrutinizes small things, sees them up close, notices the details. A good companion for a writer—and, carved in jet, almost as light as the real thing.