When Prince Albert died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1861, Queen Victoria was so consumed by grief that she entered a mourning period that lasted the rest of her life. The colour black seeped into the fashions of the British court, and a coal-black northern fossil shot to fame as the queen’s jewellery of choice. This spring, 200 years after Victoria was born, the seaside town of Whitby is opening a museum dedicated to its rare, local gem – Whitby jet.
The museum is the passion project of local jeweller Chris Sellors, whose W Hamond store on the town’s West Cliff has been a champion of Whitby jet since opening in 1860. Surrounded by 18th century fisherfolk cottages and mariner inns on cobbled Church St, the Whitby Jet Museum sits inside a converted arts-and-crafts Methodist chapel. Its walls are covered in original Burmantofts tiles, stained glass windows and organ pipes that have survived unscathed for more than a century. The museum also houses a new sustainable-seafood restaurant called Albert, with a menu of Whitby lobster, cod and English oysters.
Whitby Jet Museum is a homage to gothic and Victoriana style, displaying jewellery and curios such as a miniature table and chairs, all fashioned out of the natural gem. It’s also home to the largest piece of Whitby jet ever discovered – a 21 foot-long specimen the size of a tree trunk that acts as a centrepiece in the restaurant. Information boards and a short animated film delve into the history of Whitby jet and its age.
It’s thought to have formed from the fossilised remains of a gigantic coniferous tree that thrived in Britain during the Jurassic period. Its closest descendant today is the monkey puzzle tree. Walking into the museum, visitors are surrounded by the leaves and plant life of a Jurassic rainforest to bring the gem’s history to life, complete with the sounds of mosquitoes and dinosaurs. Whitby jet is thousands of times rarer than diamond, taking 180 to 200 million years to turn from wood into an organic gemstone. Weighed down by bustles, brocade and lace, Victorian ladies loved wearing Whitby jet because it was so light.
The British craze for Whitby jet died with Queen Victoria. Largely due to its macabre association with mourning, the gem’s popularity dwindled in the 20th century. It remains popular with the goth community, which has a significant presence in Whitby. Today, it is one of the only places in the world where jewellers still work with the gem and it can be found in dozens of stores and workshops. W Hamond works with local collectors who go out after rough seas to collects pieces of raw jet along the local coastline. Once it’s passed a quality check, it can then be cut into shape on a lapidary’s grinding wheel, before being polished for jewellery.
The museum’s official opening will be on 24 May 2019.