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Victorian Times: A Collector's Guide For Differentiating Whitby Jet & Black French Glass Jewelry

Tanzy Ward

 

Perhaps one of the most recognized and popular materials used in Victorian Era (1837-1901) accessories are Whitby Jet and its emulation, French Jet. During the 19th century, jet was a common stone used in jewelry. Although the gemstone has been used long before the Victorian Era's Grand Period (1861-1880), jet has often been highly associated with this specific period during the 19th century. After Queen Victoria (1819-1901) went into deep mourning following the death of her husband Prince Charles (1819-1861), she began to wear all black. During the time, it was actually customary for loved ones to wear black for a minimum of two years while mourning. 

 

(Mid 19th Century Victorian Jewelry & Tintype of Unidentified Woman. Photo Courtesy of Zanathia Jewelry Collection)

 

Instinctively, Victorians chose black accessories to go along with their mourning attire. One of the more popular choices were Jet stones.  Jet, a type of fossilized wood, is a gemstone often mistakenly categorized as a mineral. However, it is a ‘mineraloid’ and a form of coal. The highest quality jet was found and mined in the small town of Whitby located in England. During the 19th century, various jet workshops were in business and the industry thrived. Whitby Jet is a perfect stone for detailed carving and great for incorporating intricate designs on surfaces. Presently, it is actually illegal to mine jet in Whitby. Therefore, if you come across Whitby Jet jewelry, it is rare and precious due to its limited availability. Older Whitby Jet jewelry dates back to the 19th century, which is when the gemstone was heavily mined and produced. By the end of the 19th century, the mining of Whitby Jet was illegal and no longer easily accessible in the industry. Therefore, its scarcity and rarity correlates with the historical significance and importance of preserving the limited pieces that are still in existence.  

 

(Victorian Era Whitby Jet Jewelry Pictured, Including Beaded Necklace & Button Bracelet. Brooch is a glass imitation created from Vauxhall Glass. Photo Courtesy of Zanathia Jewelry Collection) 

 

As Whitby jet continued to be in high-demand, there were also popular imitations for natural jet. French jet was cheaper to manufacture as opposed to Whitby Jet. What exactly is French Jet? Interestingly, 'French' jet glass is not exactly 'French' and it is not real jet. It is a black glass that can look very similar to real jet. French jet pieces manufactured during the Victorian Era were also created with superb quality and the synthetic material can often be mistaken for Whitby Jet. Although both materials are black and used frequently in Victorian jewelry, there are ways to help differentiate the two. Below are some helpful tips when collecting and authenticating Jet & French Jet accessories.
(Victorian Era French Jet Beaded Jet Bracelet. When Examining The Piece, Notice The Glossy Faceted Surface & The Scratches. Whitby Jet Jewelry often has a brownish color streak on the surface if scratched. Courtesy of The Zanathia Jewelry Collection)
  • Natural Jet is often more light weight than French Jet glass. During the 19th century, Whitby Jet was used to create larger jewelry pieces since it is lighter. Jet was commonly used for sizeable brooches, lockets, necklaces and bracelets. However, large French Jet beaded bracelets were commonly created during the Victorian Era as well. Yet, these pieces will feel heavier than Whitby Jet. Black Jet and French glass 'mourning' bracelets were fairly popular and in demand during the period. There are still many Whitby Jet & French Jet examples in existence today. 
  • When examining the piece with your hands, it is important to note that French Jet is usually colder to the touch while natural Jet feels warmer. 
  • When observing the designs on Jet jewelry, the carvings are more intricate, precise, and sharp. Natural Jet cannot be reshaped whereas black glass can.
  • Since French Jet is heavier than Whitby Jet, it has been commonly used for smaller faceted beaded necklaces. The popularity of French Jet beaded necklaces extends beyond the Victorian Era and they were quite popular during the early 20th century as well. Whitby Jet was a very popular choice for long beaded necklaces during the Victorian Era. French Jet beaded necklaces may appear to be more shinier, glassier and faceted than Whitby. Black beaded necklaces were an essential mourning accessory option and also became a jewelry fashion sensation for casual looks. 
  • If scratched, French Jet will not leave a color-streaked mark. Whitby Jet will usually leave a dark burgundy or brownish streak on the surface.

 

Both Whitby Jet and French glass were highly revered and staple choices for Victorians. At times, it may be challenging differentiating the two. However, there are certain distinct physical traits and characteristics that can help to identify Whitby Jet from French Jet glass. Modernly, Victorian Whitby Jet and French glass pieces are highly collectible and historically significant to preserve. Their high-quality craftsmanship and designs are still remarkable and unique. Centuries have passed, but their historical importance and intriguing designs are still highly sought after and historically sentimental. 


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