Fossilised Monkey Puzzle Trees, Romans and Queen Victoria on the North Yorkshire Coast
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Fossilised Monkey Puzzle Trees, Romans and Queen Victoria on the North Yorkshire Coast

A brief history of Whitby jet, the black gemstone.

Not many visitors to the quaint North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby are aware that the area was once the centre of a thriving gem stone industry employing hundreds of craftsmen making items from jet. Jet is a semi precious stone, the colour of the deepest opaque black when polished, formed from the fossilised wood of the monkey puzzle tree of the Jurassic era and found in seams of shale rocks. Although this black stone can be found in many places throughout the world some of the highest quality ‘hard’ jet, used for working into the finest jewellery and ornaments, was discovered in the cliffs of Whitby and on the rugged moors of North Yorkshire.

Although individual hand crafted pieces of jet have been found in Bronze Age burial sites throughout the United Kingdom it was the Romans from workshops in Eboracum, the modern day city of York, who began in earnest to make ornaments and items of jewellery fashioned from the black stone to export to all parts of the Roman Empire.

However, it was in the 19th century that the jet industry really took hold in Whitby. The first workshops appeared in the early 1800s and by 1850 it is thought there were up to 50 established in the town. Jet had become the fashionable jewellery adornment for those in ‘mourning’ and with Queen Victoria setting the example after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 there was soon wider public demand for jet jewellery. The industry was probably at its peak in the 1870s with up to 1,500 men employed in 200 workshops, and many more involved in working small mines and tunnels driven into hill sides and coastal cliffs searching for deposits of the stone which were then transported to the Whitby workshops for crafting into jewellery.

The heyday of the industry did not last for long. The vagaries of changing fashions and the imported use of inferior ‘soft’ jet saw the demise of the industry which had all but ceased in Whitby by the early 1920s. The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre (http://www.whitbyjet.co.uk/) still employs craftsmen making items of jet jewellery and tells the local history of the industry. There is also an actual Victorian jet workshop on display, found by a builder several years ago in a derelict property in a sealed up attic. A unique time capsule of a bygone industry.

And finally, for all those eagle eyed visitors walking along Whitby’s beaches, it is still possible today to find a small piece of fossilised monkey puzzle tree or jet washed out of the cliffs and onto the sands.

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