Jet and Jet Jewellery
Whitby Jet is a black organic gemstone formed over 135 million years ago from the fossilised wood of the Araucaria Araucana tree. Whitby Jet is unique in that it is much harder than any other jet found around the world. This makes it highly prized for making jewellery and ornaments as the lightweight ‘jet’ black mineral can be highly polished and cut. It is no surprise then that Whitby Museum has one of the best collections of jet artifacts in the world with over 500 very varied examples covering jewellery, replicas of Whitby Abbey and the magnificent, intricately carved chess table made to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
During Victorian times Whitby became a popular seaside destination and Whitby Jet became a sought-after souvenir. This led to the emergence of an industry employing as many as 200 miners and 1,500 jet workers at its height. The gemstone became highly coveted amongst even the most elite including Queen Victoria, who popularised it as mourning jewellery after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861.
A visit to our Whitby Jet collection is a must. Come and see our highly interesting exhibits, one of which is a clockwork replica of a jet workshop. This demonstrates how the jet was turned, ground, polished and worked – the same skills and methods are still active today in some of Whitby’s fine jet workshops, though the styles of the jewellery produced have moved with the times.
For further information see our Frequently Asked Questions about Jet
Included in this collection
Jet chess table
Some of the finest work manifests itself in the two jet chess tables. Three jet chess boards are known to have been made in Whitby. The Museum owns two (the third has been lost sight of) including that designed and carved by John Sherwood which was begun in 1895 being intended for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, but which took four years to complete. It was described at the time as ‘the crowning triumph of the jet age – the most beautiful object of its kind ever made’. This particular board was acquired in 1996 from Mr Robert Murfield in memory of his late wife Martha Cox whose father William Cox was one of the last Whitby jet carvers.
Model of jet workshop
One of the most interesting artifacts is the replica of the jet workshop model made by George Wood, a jet worker, in 1889. This model stood for many years in the doorway of Elisha Walker’s jet shop at 97 Church Street in Whitby. The heads of the 6 jet workers were carved from the bowls of clay pipes and were caricatures of George Wood’s fellow jet workers. It was driven by clockwork and the men treadle their machines such as polishers, turners, finishers, grinders, working the jet, whilst the foreman’s head turns periodically to see that everyone is working hard! The model was donated to our Museum and was on display for many years but it became too frail and fragile to be left on display. So we commissioned a replica which was made by Alan Dickinson and Gary Thwaites and was generously funded by the Thomas William Varley Roe deceased fund. This replica is a very popular object in the Museum. The original model is kept in store at the Museum.
Jet Model of Whitby Abbey before the tower fell
Carved by Joseph Lyth
Jet prayer book cover