News From Terre Haute, Indiana


June 15, 2014

HISTORICAL TREASURE: More to the history of jet than most realize

This beautiful necklace in the Vigo County Historical Society Museum’s collection is associated with customs surrounding the prolonged period of mourning that widowed Victorian women had to endure. But there is more to the history of jet than most people realize.

Jet is a brown coal, or fossilized wood of ancient trees. The resulting mineral is found in many places around the world, including Spain and England. Many cultures throughout human history used jet in their jewelry. In the Middle Ages, jet was thought to keep evil spirits away so it was used liberally in ecclesiastical jewelry. This industry, centered in Germany, prospered for a long time before declining during the Reformation.

In the 18th and 19th century, the popularity of jet took a serious turn, becoming a symbol of death and sorrow. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, died of typhus on Dec. 14, 1861, she allowed only jet jewelry to be worn at court. Society, following the queen’s example, created a culture and fashion of mourning that endured for the rest of her life (she died Jan. 22, 1901).

During Queen Victoria’s reign, the main source of high quality jet was the English town of Whitby. Jet came from simple mines that were dangerous to work, threatening to collapse at any time. An easier way to collect it was to patrol the local beaches for pieces of jet that washed up on shore.

Whitby jet was stronger than jet from other countries  so it could be carved into larger pieces of jewelry such as bracelets with big stones. And it was more resistant to cracking, easier to polish and held details in the jewelry well. Yet the high demand for jet encouraged the importation of softer, less expensive jet from Spain. This caused the jet industry in Whitby to go into a decline from which it has never recovered.

Today it is illegal to mine jet in Whitby as large sections of the town sit on top of seams where jet can be found. Today’s craftsmen in Whitby have to rely again on jet washed up on shore; it comes from the very same sea-battered cliffs.

However, this was not the end of jet being used as jewelry; witness the imitations (such as glass and plastic) that try to compete with it. So stop by the museum and see the real thing in person. As you view this beautiful necklace, keep in mind the last four lines of a poem written by a traveler who stopped for rest and refreshment at an English pub called the Jet Miners Arms:

“Still, fashions change, mayhap some day,

Again the craft will thrive,

And Yorkshire jet will ring the earth,

Black, flashing and alive.”

Historical Treasure

The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through


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