My first gemology-related post ties in so well with my love of history (!!!)….I first had heard of Jet as a melancholically romantic black-clad teenager reading Shakespeare; “Black, forsooth, coal-black as jet…” and was intrigued by the thought of whatever this mysterious material could be that black itself was likened to. Jet’s real claim to fame arose after the death and subsequent mourning period, of Queen Victoria‘s beloved husband, Albert, but archaeological findings show that Jet has been a revered material in Europe since at least 10,000 BC, making it one of the first gems to be worn and fashioned by human beings. This amazing history, and link to our collective past and that of our earth, is one of the main reasons Jet so fascinates me today. Jet is a type of fossilized coal produced by a certain species of prehistoric tree, magically transformed by Mother Nature about 180 million years ago. It’s relative hardness compared to other more common types of coal is due to the balance of unique conditions over millenia–great pressure, water, and perhaps a special combination of bacteria and lack of oxygen needed to silicate what would otherwise be fodder smouldering in the belly of a barbecue. To me, this is absolutely breath-taking: wearing a piece of Jet is literally touching a tree that was alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth. On certain pieces of Jet, the wood’s structure can be seen under a microscope. Very special indeed. Amber holds a similar fascination for me, but it is actually the fossilized sap of trees and can be about 179 million years younger, lol–still, no small feat compared to our lifetimes.
Like Amber, Jet is extremely light weight compared to its mass, making it both an interesting find washed up on a beach and easy to carve (as well as break). Polished Jet can take on a rich, satiny lustre that is capable of having a very smooth high polish–so much so that it has been used as a mirror before the advent of man-made glass, and subsequently, as an aid for scrying–that is divination, similar to the mental picture one has of a gypsy gazing into a crystal ball. Perhaps it is this, combined with with the warm, organic nature, and static electricity of Jet that gives it a very special place in the hearts of those interested in the metaphysical. Jet has such a draw, if not downright power, that adornments fashioned from it are traditionally reserved for, and worn by Pagan Priestess during ritual, sometimes in combination with Amber. Highly regarded Wiccan writer and practioner Scott Cunningham stated that “When jet is continuously worn on the body, it is thought to absorb part of the wearer’s soul.” This concept is bloody powerful, and something I had innate understanding of when I first began collecting Jet–it is a vessel of sorts, a conduit of history. In suit with the Pagan interest in Jet, members of the Clergy and Priesthood were also fond of Jet. It is said to be a purifier, an absorber of negativity and therefore protective. All of the Jet that I have in my small but growing collection is Victorian, from the height of Jet’s popularity, and I love to wear it as much as possible. All Jet jewellery was hand carved and hand polished, often with very simple tools, so again I love the connection forged between the Jet and it’s carver and the wearer, each being linked by history. Aside from that, I love that it is light-weight, timelessly elegant and looks fantastic with leather, sweaters and handbags of any sort! Jet’s black sheen goes well with either silver or gold toned metals as well as with countless other types of accessories such as sunglasses. At first glance, Jet resembles plastic, and in fact, black “plastic” by which I loosely mean bakelite, vulcanite, epoxies, etc., was first used to imitate Jet. It’s ironic how the the “faux” becomes so successful that it takes the place of the “genuine”, the fake becoming more real than the real itself. That said, beautiful pieces of Jet jewellery from Granny’s jewellery box can easily make their way into garage sales and trash-bins! Upon closer inspection however, one can detect mould lines and soft edges on beads that have a “too uniform look” to be Jet. Bubbles and a noticeable coolness or heft are also indicative of faux Jet, plastic, glass or otherwise faux. For starters, genuine Jet is BLACK. Not brownish, greenish or any other dark colour that could may be black. It is solidly black, and opaque–not see-through. As each piece of Jet was hand-carved, there are almost always little eccentricities in it (which I find most charming)–facets may not be perfectly aligned or matching components may not be exactly the same size. There is often a tell-tale “graining” to genuine Jet partially due to the method in which it was polished. Jet is also able to take on a “sharpness” in its finish unlike moulded plastics, glass or other imitations.
With practice, one can become good at reading the attributes of Jet without resorting to more destructive or at least potentially damaging tests such as “the burning test” where the piece in question is touched in an inconspicuous place with the point of a hot needle. Jet will give off an earthy, coal smell whereas plastic will smell like burning plastic (yuck) or burnt rubber (eww). Of course, the best way to tell if your piece is Jet is to take it to an accredited Gemologist who has both the equipment and expertise to verify the piece in question. Unfortunately, Jet is relatively fragile as far as gem materials go–it is highly likely that it will break or at least chip if it is dropped or knocked. I’ve learned this first hand–while so beautiful, Jet bracelets are only for the gentlest of occasions! In some ways I like this aspect of Jet–it makes me very mindful when wearing it. Often old Jet pieces will have tiny “flea-bites” and abraisions from minor wear that do not detract from the beauty of the piece. I store my Jet pieces in soft natural velour pouches and lightly polish them with a flannel cloth when needed, sometimes with a drop of olive oil. I never expose my pieces to perfumes or cleaners! Like Pearls, Jet should be the last thing put on, after hair and make-up are done and fragrance has been applied. This may sound daunting and unappealing to some, and perhaps Jet is not for them. But for myself, the beauty, symbolism and history of Jet far outweighs the extra care that Jet requires. I do appreciate that something so ancient can be so fragile–it reminds me of my place in the Universe and I’m more than happy to give it the respect it deserves.
This being said, I believe that there is also a special place for Jet simulants, especially plastic, and many Jet simulants such as Gutta Percha, Vulcanite and Bakelite are collectable in their own right with a unique history of their own, aside from being pretty. Plastic (and glass) is fun, carefree and very modern, which to me inspires a lot of joy in the wearer. Many people are often very disappointed when they discover that their heirloom jewellery is not actually comprised of precious material, Jet or otherwise. While this is obviously disappointing from a resale or investment perspective, this should not detract from the sentimental value or personal value of the piece. Hey, if Grandma looked great wearing those beautiful plastic beads (and fooled you all into believing that her great taste was expensive), that itself is a fantastic story and should speak to you in a special way, especially since many people would never dream of selling Grandma’s beads, even if they were worth a goldmine. Do I wear plastic and faux jewels? You bet. Especially those from my Grandma (more on this in the future perhaps). Truly great style has no monetary value. But we are talking about Jet in this post….