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Gem Profile

Once upon a not-so-distant time, death marked as important an occasion to buy jewelry as Christmas or marriage. The end of days even had its own preferred gems and distinct genres, all of them suitable for what was known as mourning jewelry. In the 17th century, for instance, mourning jewelry made from or embellished with locks of hair was a fashion staple. When the style staged a comeback early in the 19th century, hair became more valuable than silver, notes Jeanenne Bell in her fascinating book, Collecting Victorian Jewelry.

At no time did mortality and artisanry mingle with more frequency and flair than during the Victorian era. Indeed, when Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, her epic grief dictated a somberness of wardrobe—and therefore England's dress code—for the next 30 years of her reign. Finally, in the so-called "Gay Nineties," when the far more convivial Princess Alexandra, wife of Prince Edward of Wales (who became king in 1901), took on the role of the country's reigning avatar of fashion, mourning jewelry started a decline from which it has never recovered. Until then, jewelry served as a common personal commemorative for lost family and friends.

If this sounds morbid, keep in mind the following extenuating fact. Most 19th century households suffered the death of at least one child before they reached the age of five. No wonder that elaborately staged photographs of dead infants dressed in their Sunday best and usually lying in a coffin hung in many Victorian homes. The highlight of many a social gathering was to read and sob aloud at a melodramatic death scene from a current best seller.

With mourning a fixture of social life, it also had to be a fixture of fashion. Although several gems were associated with what might be called grief wear, one reigned above all: jet, a fossilized form of driftwood that is a close relative of coal. If diamonds were the gem of love, jet was the gem of loss. There were practical, as well as symbolic, reasons for its popularity in this context. For starters, jet is black and black is the color of mourning. But color was far from the sole deciding factor in jet's wide use.

Take a look at a photo of a typical Victorian woman of taste. She's bundled in layers of clothing and her jewelry is bulky. The last thing she needs to wear as a public remembrance is heavy jewelry. How do you get heft without heaviness? Jet, which feels as light as balsa wood, came to the rescue. No other black gem was anywhere near as lightweight. With an admittedly dainty hardness between 2-1/2 and 4, it was easy to carve and very amenable to a high polish. At a time when shows of exceptional workmanship were a major feature of jewelry, jet was an artisan's dream.

As luck would have it, England was to jet what South Africa would become to diamonds after 1870. The Yorkshire coast town of Whitby served as hub for the world's best deposits of this organic gem. Worked as early as 1500 B.C., Whitby's cliff-side jet mines were extensively worked by the Romans, who shipped tons of this material back home for use in ornamentation.

Jet's heyday was the period just after 1860 when England went into mourning for Prince Albert and America's Civil War brought death to the doorsteps of almost every northern and southern home. Between 1850 and 1873, writes Bell, Whitby's jet works quadrupled from 50 to 200, employing thousands of artisans. Later, as miners tunneled deeper and deeper into the cliffs and nearby towns faced the threat of crashing into the ocean, jet mining at Whitby was outlawed. Eventually, Whitby couldn't keep up with the demand for English jet articles such as bracelets and brooches—despite supplemental imports of the material (said to be lower grade) from Spain.

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