Whitby jet jewellery was displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and attracted international attention. And then, in 1861, Prince Albert died and Queen Victoria went into mourning for the rest of her life. Her court also mourned the dead consort for a considerable time. Whitby jet jewellery was in great demand and between 1862 and 1874, prices for it soared.
Substitutes came onto the market. A common one was Vulcanite, resulting from the heating of rubber with sulphur. It was opaque and dye was added to make it black. It was able to be moulded and thus mass-produced. Over time, the colour can fade to a mottled khaki brown and it may lose its polish. Another imitant was gutta percha, which had the same chemical formula but was in a different physical state. Its colour was a brownish black and it was easy to mould but was not as durable as vulcanite. Bog oak, a fossilised wood from Ireland, is younger than jet and is a paler colour. While it was tougher than jet, it did not polish well. Finally, French jet was used. It is black glass and was first used in France. It is cheap to manufacture and can be mass produced. It is heavier than jet and cold to the touch. There were more imitants but these are the most common.
By the 1880s, the use of jet was in decline and by the time of Art Nouveau jewellery, it was finished. How society mourned was changing and clothing was lighter and more colourful.
While jet jewellery was worn extensively for mourning, it was also popular as sentimental and decorative jewellery.
Earrings were carved with acorns; pietra dura panels of flowers were placed within earrings; lockets contained hand painted porcelain plaques from Italy or Austria, the most common being a Tyrolean boy wearing a green hat; a carved hand carrying a bouquet of flowers contained a love message depending on what flowers were included; and facetted snake bracelets symbolising eternal love were common.
Whitby is fascinating for all sorts of reasons.
Vulcanized rubber would have been relatively new at that time, wouldn’t it. Was it seen as a cheap imitation, or was it seen as a new, modern alternative, do you know?
Yes, vulcanite was considered an early form of plastic. Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanisation process in 1844 and it proved to be a very flexible and able to be molded for jewellery. At that time, jet, which is brittle and difficult to work, was very expensive so vulcanite was seen as a cheaper imitation,