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September 9, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: A jet trip into history

TERRE HAUTE — A beautiful piece of jewelry displayed on the lower floor of the Historical Museum stands as a example of one of the more exotic uses of coal, a commodity that has been of great historical importance to the development of the Wabash Valley.

Jet, also called polished coal, is a dark brown to black variety of lignite, a low grade coal. The formation of jet was the long-term result of the compression of masses of wood in the mud on the ocean floor. The ornamental use of jet has a long history. Buttons, beads, amulets and other ornaments dating from prehistoric times have been found in England. It was often the stone of choice for rosaries, crosses, carvings and jewelry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Queen Victoria raised jet to its pinnacle of popularity when she chose it as her mourning jewelry. She wore it exclusively for 40 years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. For years, she insisted that all ladies presented at court wear only adornments of jet in reverence of her mourning.

Early in the 20th century, fashion trends changed and jet jewelry became passé. However, when the world’s fashion gurus decide that black is in vogue, baubles made of shiny jet appear on runways, in advertisements, stores, catalogs, and circling the necks and wrists of the fashionable dressed.

The jet necklace at the necklace at the Vigo County Historical Museum is an example of the beauty that can be hidden inside the common and unattractive — in this case, a lump of black, sooty coal.


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