Black jewellery was a necessity when mourning a loved one in the 18th and 19th centuries. Depending on the stage of mourning, jet was often the only jewellery allowed. As Victorian clothing became heavier and fuller, larger pieces of jewellery needed to be worn and jet, which is very light, was ideal. The best quality of jet came from Whitby in the UK and was in demand as it was less inclined than imported jet to crack and split. However, rising costs and reduced supply led to a search for substitutes, one of which was vulcanite. Vulcanite was created from the heating of rubber and sulphur. Charles Goodyear patented a process for making soft, elastic rubber for use as a fabric in 1844 in the US and his brother, Nelson, patented a process for hard rubber in 1851. Thomas Hancock had also patented a similar process for vulcanisation of rubber in the UK in 1844, applying for it 8 weeks before Goodyear’s application.
The terms ‘vulcanite’ and ‘vulcanisation’ had no real meaning other than describing a process whereby rubber and sulphur are combined in a chemical change brought about by heat. It is based on the Roman god of fire, Vulcan, and Hancock claimed that a friend of his, William Brockedon, invented the word to describe the process. Neither Charles Goodyear’s nor Thomas Hadcock’s 1844 patents used the word ‘vulcanisation’ or ‘vulcanising’ but Hancock’s 1846 patent did.
Vulcanite, also called ebonite, is opaque and black dye was added to it to make it black. It was able to be molded and thus mass-produced. It was used for an enormous range of purposes from waterproof clothing to teeth in both the UK and the US. The first reference to using it to make jewellery, in this case, bracelets, is in the 1846 patent granted to William Brockedon and Thomas Hancock.
Over time, the colour of vulcanite can fade to a khaki brown, sometimes mottled, and it may lose its polish.