JET AND DEATH

Fortean Times - - Strange Days -

Ref­er­ences in lit­er­a­ture show that jet was well known through­out the El­iz­a­bethan pe­riod, and in the 18th cen­tury crude beads and crosses were fash­ioned in Whitby. The rapid bur­geon­ing of the in­dus­try dur­ing the Vic­to­rian age has been at­trib­uted to a num­ber of fac­tors.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the lathe in 1800 is be­lieved to have been the spark, fol­lowed by the open­ing of the first rail­way line to Whitby in 1836. This cre­ated a new mar­ket, as jet was sold to the in­flux of tourists as gifts and sou­venirs, with many items fea­tur­ing images of the town’s iconic St Hilda’s Abbey.

As women’s fash­ions changed to vo­lu­mi­nous crino­line skirts and heavy cloth­ing, jewellery had to be­come larger – and jet was the per­fect gem to wear as it was so light­weight. And when jet was shown in the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851, it led to Royal pa­tron­age – fa­mously from Queen Vic­to­ria, but it was also worn by the Queen of Bavaria and the Em­press of France.

The real turn­ing point came at the death of Prince Al­bert in 1861. Vic­to­ria adopted jet as jewellery of mourn­ing and spec­i­fied that it was the only adorn­ment al­lowed to be worn at court. Vic­to­ria’s sub­jects fol- lowed court fash­ion, and since in­fant mor­tal­ity was so high, many women wore black for most of their lives. By 1872, there were 200 jet shops in Whitby em­ploy­ing 1,500 men.

But jet’s suc­cess was also its down­fall. On the death of Queen Vic­to­ria, a new Ed­war­dian era of el­e­gance and light emerged which had no stom­ach for jet and its as­so­ci­a­tions with death. The change in fash­ion sent the in­dus­try into the dol-

drums for decades. Again, it was the ar­rival of death, and on a colos­sal scale, that re­vived it: the out­break of the Great War.

On his 1916 visit to Whitby, Machen tracked down a tra­di­tional jet worker called Mr Trat­tles, who was turn­ing a lathe with his feet. Mr Trat­tles showed the jour­nal­ist Vic­to­rian bracelets of “the old school” which Machen found “ap­palling”.

He wrote in The Evening News: “They were like mourn­ing coach horses. They were com­posed of gross jet tablets two inches deep.” Trat­tles also showed him a bracelet that took a prize at the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion – deeply carved with flint and flow­ers and “ex­quis­ite skill” – but ad­mit­ted that “no-one would wear it now”.

How­ever, Machen de­scribed how the jet work­ers were busy once more. “Not so busy as in the golden [eigh­teen] ‘fifties, ‘six­ties, sev­en­ties; but still do­ing com­fort­ably and work­ing hard, and find­ing a ready mar­ket for their work. They are mak­ing mourn­ing brooches, bracelets, or­na­ments of all kinds for those who have lost rel­a­tives in the war.”

BE­LOW: A 19th cen­tury Whitby jet stall; a mourn­ing neck­lace; a pen­dant with the face of Me­dusa.

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