By Hannah Connorton
New York--Whitby jet could be making a comeback in the United States soon.

The gemstone--yes, jet is a gemstone--reached its peak of popularity in the second half of the 19th century.

Actress Donna Air wearing a Whitby jet spider“It was hugely popular, like Pandora is now,” says Rebecca Tucker, a jeweler at C.W. Sellors Fine Jewellery and Luxury Watches, which has multiple locations in England. “When something is that popular, it doesn’t last--it has its heyday and dies down a bit. And because of jet’s association with mourning it fell out of favor, and styles changed as well; Art Noveau came and there was no place for black anymore.”

For the majority of the 20th century, jet jewelry was shunned as an unattractive stone that people weren’t interested in. At best, it was set in silver costume jewelry and sold to tourists around Whitby, England, where much jet originates.

But in the past 25 to 30 years, Tucker says, people have started to look at the gemstone again.

“We now set it alongside diamonds and in platinum and 18-karat gold,” she says. “We’re really setting a high standard for jet jewelry, and that’s part of its success, in raising the bar and letting people know (jet) deserves to be set in high-end jewelry as well.”

Tucker said C.W. Sellors made jet jewelry for Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday, as well as a jet jewelry set that was worn by actress Donna Air for a premiere of The Amazing Spiderman in 2012. In addition, designer Jacqueline Cullen brought a Whitby jet collection to Couture last year, where she exhibited as part of Stephen Webster’s Rock Vault.

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The television series Downton Abbey also has had an impact on jet’s rebounding popularity, as some of the key characters have worn jet jewelry.

Although mining Whitby jet was an accepted practice and happened in enormous quantities during the Victorian era, it’s not permissible to do so in Whitby now due to coastal erosion. Its limited deposits are still beach-combed by locals, who wait for stormy weather to wash the material off the cliffs.

“People appreciate its history and it being a really unusual gemstone, and because it’s a classic black stone, it goes with everything,” Tucker says. “It’s going to keep rolling; there’s a growing appreciation for it.”

What is Whitby jet? Whitby jet is considered a gemstone, and is made from the fossilized wood of the ancient monkey puzzle tree (scientific name: the Araucaria tree.)

After a tree fell, it would sink to the bottom of the sea, get covered with sediment, and the pressure and lack of oxygen--coupled with 180 million years--would fossilize the wood into jet. Now, jet can be found in a 10-mile radius of the small seaside town of Whitby on the Northeast coast of England, as well as in Russia, Spain, Poland and certain parts of North America.

What was Whitby jet used for? Whitby jet has been used to make jewelry and body adornments for thousands of years, Tucker says, and is thought to be one of the earliest gemstones known to man, with pieces of worked jet dating back to the Stone Age. Jet also was used as a talisman to ward off evil.

When was it popular? Whitby jet was at the height of its popularity in the latter half of the 19th century, Tucker says. The success of the jet industry at this time can be attributed to Queen Victoria’s love of the gemstone--she at one point was so fond of it, she made it compulsory for jet jewelry to be worn at court.

“She actually made it popular,” Tucker explains. “She and Prince Albert were great patrons of British manufacture, and that was one of the reasons she liked Whitby jet. When Prince Albert died, she chose it as her gemstone of choice to represent her period of mourning. So now it’s associated with mourning because of the way Queen Victoria wore it, although much jet is also fashion jewelry and unassociated with mourning.”

When it is mourning jewelry, however, jet was typically used for lockets and photographs.

Why did people work in Whitby jet? While jet can be found around the world, the jet found around Whitby has always been considered the best and most prized because of the superior shine that can be achieved on its surface as well as its durability, Tucker says, allowing craftsmen to carve the most intricate designs.

Whitby jet also can stand the test of time; foreign jets eventually will crack and crumble, and do not produce the same high shine due to it not being as dense as Whitby jet. Tucker says it is thought that the millions of tons of rock that applied immense pressure during the fossilization process has is what has made Whitby jet denser than the rest.

What other materials were used with Whitby jet? Throughout the 19th century, there were many different mediums that were popular alongside Whitby jet, such as the use of human hair, which was popular for both love tokens and mourning jewelry. “Pietra dura,” an Italian skill, and shell cameos also were popular pairings, and would be crafted in Italy before being sent to Whitby to be set in jet by specialized workers.

How much are Whitby jet pieces worth? Victorian pieces can range from a few hundred to many thousands of pounds.

“Antique Whitby jet is becoming increasingly collectible and desirable due to its rarity and a better understanding of its importance in England’s social history, as well as its place in the history of jewelry,” Tucker says.

Modern jet jewelry is made at a price accommodating all budgets, she continued. Sterling silver and jet stud earrings can cost approximately $30, while exclusive, high-end jet and diamond pieces set in 18-karat gold or platinum can run into the thousands of pounds.

Still, one thing is for sure, Tucker says.

“For the first time in Whitby jet’s history, we are now setting the gem in jewelry made to appeal to a more international market, and in exclusive jewelry that raises the profile of this humble British gemstone.”

How can a retailer add Whitby jet pieces to their jewelry offerings? The jewelry store Tucker works with, C.W. Sellors Fine Jewellery and Luxury Watches in England, has 35 years of experience working with Whitby jet and supplies hundreds of jewelers around the world with the gemstone.

W. Hamond, in Whitby, England, also works in Whitby jet.

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