Monogramed locket – AEI- amity, eternity, infinity – 1860 to 1870 (at Camberwell Antique Centre)

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.

Whitby jet panel engraved IMO (in Memory of) (at Camberwell Antique Centre)

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.

Victorian vulcanite cuff (sold)

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.

Victorian Whitby jet earrings with acorn motif (at Camberwell Antique Centre)

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.

Common painted plaque of a Tyrolean boy wearing a green hat (1860s)