The height of the Victorian period of mourning reached its climax in 1861, when Prince Albert passed away after only 21 years of marriage to Queen Victoria of England. The heartbroken Queen was devastated that her beloved Albert would no longer be by her side, and fell into a period of mourning that would last til her own dying day in 1901. Her grief was so overwhelming that the Queen declared that her court also wear mourning attire for the next three years and that only jet jewelry was to be worn at court for the first year. The United States also adopted the mourning fashions and customs as may were perishing in the Civil War.
In the Victorian era, there was a wide variety of materials used to mimic Whitby Jet for mourning jewelry. This guide will help you determine if your item is made from genuine jet, onyx, French jet (black glass), obsidian, black garnets, black amber, vulcanite, dyed horn or gutta percha. I may write a guide on hairwork another time.
Jet: is a hard, coal-like variety of lignite. It's color is velvety black or brownish black when passing into bituminous wood. It has a brilliant lustre and is resinous.This brittle material is formed when ancient waterlogged driftwood sinks to the ocean floor and becomes embedded in the mud.Through chemical action, pressure, and heat, the wood is transformed into a compact black fossilized material that is lightweight and fragile.Jet is well suited for carving and great amounts of jewelry were created.This demand for jet was so great, that the cliffside that were over the town of Whitby,England, were in dire straits of collapse. Mining for jet in Whitby was declared illegal due to the circumstances. Because of this shortage of jet, many substitutions were being used.
To test for jet, you can either carefully rub it across a sidewalk or unglazed pottery as this will produce a brownish, black streak if it is genuine jet. Another test is the hot pin test,once, heated red hot, introduce the hot tip of the pin into an inconspicuous area of the suspected piece, if it is jet, it not accept the pin easily and will emit very little odor or a slight smell of coal. Jet will also float or sink very slowly as it is very lightweight.When rubbed briskly onto silk or wool, true jet will develop static electricity and will pick up little bits of lint or paper.If burned, it will have a green flame and have a sweet bituminous smell. Jet is also warm to the touch.
Genuine Whitby jet.
Genuine Whitby jet.
Dyed Horn: horn can be heated and molded. It can be dyed to resemble jet. It is lightweight and may feel smooth, or may have a waxy or greasy feel. To test for horn, you can use the hot pin method, if it is horn it will burn with the most disagreeable odor, like burning hair or feathers.Hold natural horn to the light,sometimes you can see light through the edges.
Bog Oak: a drak brown peat-like material used especially by the Irish as an imitator of jet. It is carved and not molded, motifs are usually harp, castle, or shamrock. Hot pin test will reveal a wood like odor.
Obsidian: is a volcanic glass. Generally black and opaque. Obsidian will not burn under the hot pin test.
Gutta Percha: is a black or brown hard rubber like material made from the sap of a Malayan tree.It will not give off a rubber smell when using the hot pin test.You can rub it briskly on a piece of fabric, it will have a burnt rubber smell.The taste will be salty if you press it against your tongue.
Black garnets: a variety of iron lime garnet, this stone has a velvety black color.Black garnets will not burn under the hot pin test.
Vulcanite: black rubber material. Hot pin test will emit a sulfuric or burnt rubber smell.Hold vulcanite up to the light, it will look brown.
Onyx: some onyx is used for jewelry. Crape Stone, is onyx that has been treated with an acid to give it a dull finish, it also has a wavy appearance on the top surface. Hot pin will not penetrate onyx.
Onyx Crape Stone.
Black Amber: another name for Jet, as it was often found accompanying amber.
Celluloid: an early plastic, normally used to imitate ivory. Rub the piece briskly between your fingers, it will have a camphor like smell. It is highly flammable, so I do not recommend the hot pin test.
French jet: is slightly glamourous term for black glass. In 1893, the Libbey Glass Co. started producing this for beads and and small items. It is heavier than genuine jet.Will feel cold to the touch. Tap on your teeth, it will have a hard clack or clear ring. The hot pin will not penetrate glass.Look for mold marks.
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Please visit these sites for fabulous antique mourning jewelry.