The Whitby Jet Bangle... or is it?

Whitby Jet Bangle?  
Look at this! Isn't it gorgeous? My great grandmother, Elsie May, left this bracelet in her button box, in pieces. My mother inherited the box, picked out the pieces and threaded them on knicker elastic to make the lovely whole you see here. It fits snug on your wrist for an authentic dash of Victorian Gothic Whitby Jetness. Just the thing when you're evoking Mina Harker.

Elsie May and her husband Charlie,
perhaps she's wearing the bangle here
Elsie was a young woman in the 1900s, so I think it's safe to say her bangle is late Victorian. But is it real Whitby Jet? If it is, it would be worth a small fortune.

I've researched a lot, I've found a lot. What follows are the highlights of that research and my take on...

How to Identify Whitby Jet 

 "Like Whitby Jet But Not" comes in many forms: modern plastic, glass (known as French Jet), bog oak, coal, Bakelite, horn or Vulcanite, from the planet Vulcan. OK I made that last bit up, but the Vulcanite is real, an early plastic that turns a sepia colour with age, it was branded with the rather wonderful name Ebonite and was very popular as fake jet in Victorian times.

 Jet, Coal, Bog Oak, Glass, Ebonite, Horn, Bakelite?
It could be any of these

So how can you spot jet and its many imitators?

Is it black? 
The clue's in the name: proper jet is jet black, and does not fade with age. If you polish jet it has a soft sheen, not a hard brightness that comes with black glass. My bracelet does look black, and not too shiny, but where it's been worn it also looks a little brown. If it was all brown, I'd be looking at an Ebonite bangle.

Is it heavy or light?
Jet is lightweight. If it's heavy, it's probably glass. Yes, my bracelet is light weight. I'm still in the running for Whitby authenticity.

Is it warm?
Strangely for something black, shiny and associated with vampires, true Whitby jet is quite warm when you touch it. Again, my bracelet seems to be that. Glass would be cold, as would coal.

Does it look hand carved?
Whitby Jet pieces are hand carved from solid lumps; you can't melt jet and pour it into a mould. Any signs of moulding - thin lines at the edge where the two halves of the mould met - mean your vintage find is probably plastic. If it's very perfect, and repeated patterns are identical, again it's likely that this has been made by mould and not carved, so not true jet. My bracelet does not have mould marks but it is suspiciously perfect, and each cross identical. Boo hoo.

Each cross is identical, suggesting a mould, but no mould lines?  

Can you see wood grain?
Speaking geologically, jet was once wood, so it is possible to see wood grain in real jet pieces, especially on the back where it's not been carved. With my bracelet, there's a strange surface to the back but it's more like crackle glaze than wood. It seems organic, but not wooden.

 At the back, my bangle's surface looks kind of crackle glazed 
The Red Hot Needle Test 
Not for the faint hearted. If you're going to do this, make sure you pick an area of your piece that's well hidden before you poke. The idea is you take a large darning needle, heat it until it's red hot then touch your wannabe jet in that out-of-the-way place. If it's jet or coal, the puff of smoke you get should smell quite tarry, like coal burning. If it smells like rubber it's likely your piece is Vulcanite (Ebonite). Bog oak smells of burning wood (mmm nice), plastic smells of plastic (yuck) and glass, well that just won't melt from a hot needle. So a scary test, but one that narrows it down to jet or coal. If anything my bracelet smelled of burning hair, yikes, it was made from hair?

The streak test 
OK so I did not get the hallowed coal tarr smell that indicates my piece is jet or coal, but if you did you'll want to know the final test to separate these two materials and know if you have jet for sure. Again not something you do on a whim, but if you take some unglazed porcelain (such as the back of a ceramic tile) and scrape a piece of your item across it, it will leave a streak. Whitby jet leaves a dark brown mark, coal a black mark, Vulcanite (Ebonite) a light brown. I did not do this test, I was worried I'd damage the bracelet.

So is it, or isn't it? 
I'm pretty sure my piece is not true Whitby Jet. My conclusion is it's horn. I would never have guessed this before I did all this research as I did not realise you can soften horn enough to press it into a mould. But now I know. Here's the description that gives me the smoking gun (with the smoke smelling of hair):

Horn is light and can be easily worked, even moulded if heated in water. When stained it can be passed off as Jet but items are often rough and scaly on the reverse side. Horn does not have the deep glossy black of Jet and when held up to the light the edges are often translucent due to incomplete staining. When scratched the material produces a grey powder. When a hot needle is applied the material will smell of burning hair. Taken from Black as Jet's website, the online store for Whitby jet jewellery. 

And the final test, putting "pressed horn bracelet" into Google Images turns up many examples that are incredibly similar to this bracelet, though none exactly the same. A decades old family mystery solved. Now the only question is, Antique Roadshow style, how much is it worth?

Invitation to Comment

How much is it worth? I think that might be a new blog post in itself. 

Do you have a piece of possible Whitby Jet, and has this post helped you identify it? Would be thrilled if so. 

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  1. Comment from my friend Debbie (via Facebook)

    Hi Ang, loved your blog, really interesting. I have a few pieces of Whitby Jet with my parents travelling to Whitby to buy it for birthdays, and Christmas's over the years. it's my favourite it's actually Victorian mourning jewelry. There is also one little shop in the shambles in York that sell it. I'm currently wearing a whitby jet ring and bracelet xx

  2. Whitby jet jewellery-We are a small company that produces handcrafted jet jewellery from our workshop in Whitby, North Yorkshire. We only use the best quality Whitby jet which we either collect ourselves or source from one of a handful of trusted local collectors. This means we know the origin of every piece of jet before it is cut and polished.


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