Whitby Jet - Whitby Online

Whitby Jet

Whitby has long been famous for it's high quality jet (lignite). Jet is a black or dark brown mineraloid derived from decaying wood, exerted under great pressure.

During the mid Jurassic period Araucaria trees (Monkey Puzzle or Chilean Pine) were washed into the sea and combined with material deposits, vegetable debris and mud to form a sedimentary layer on the sea bed. The huge amount of pressure caused by the building up of this sedimentary layer cause the wood to eventually become hard. These pockets of pressurised wood were sealed by the sedimentary layer and sea above and anaerobic fossilisation slowly took place producing the seams and deposits of jet that Whitby has utilized over the years.

For many years the jet was only revealed by the wind and waves naturally eroding the shale cliffs but as the mineral grew in popularity, most notably in the Victorian era, increasing demand lead to a progression from beach combing to cliff digging and eventually to mining in order to supply the growing trade.
Evidence of jet as a prized mineral and gem can be seen as far back as the Bronze Age with excavations uncovering jet beads and artefacts. There is also abundant evidence from the exploration of archaeological sites that the Romans had a fondness for jet and many artefacts from these times can be seen on display at the Whitby Museum.

More recently however jet's heyday and surge in popularity came about during the Victorian era. Jet, owing to it's dark and sombre colour has often been associated with mourning and Queen Victoria herself wore much Whitby jet jewellery during her reign as part of her mourning dress. This certainly would have added to it popularity as a gem but as can be seen from the opening of Whitby's first jet shop in 1808 to the fifty open in 1850, jet's appeal was already well established by the time her husband Prince Albert died in 1861.

With the increase in demand there came an increase in the danger involved in acquiring the stone and injuries and even fatalities became common as men took to lowering themselves over cliffs in order to procure samples. Mines too were often fragile, owing to the shale of the cliffs and many collapsed crushing the miners left inside.

The scale of the jet industry in Whitby was ultimately wounded in 1870 when large quantities of inferior and thus cheaper Spanish jet was imported, critically injuring Whitby's production. Demand outstripped supply and the Whitby workers were unable to compete with their international rivals and so the industry declined. Since then the Whitby jet trade has relied once again on chance discoveries and beach combing.

Today there are several thriving jet workshops and jewellers in the town. A walk along the cobbled streets of the East side will not disappoint anyone wishing to purchase their own gem.

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