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Step Inside a Victorion Whitby Jet Workshop

Jewellery & Watch News

It’s difficult to imagine a Victorian workshop. We have become used to the advancement in technology that allows everything to be made much, much quicker. We’ve come a long way since the 1800s yet the fascination with the tools and processes that enabled for Victorians to keep up with the demand is extremely interesting.


Let us take you back a couple of centuries to the Victorian era when Whitby Jet was at its height of fashion due to the Queen’s great influence. After the death of her beloved Prince Albert, Queen Victoria only wore Whitby Jet jewellery making the North Yorkshire gemstone extremely popular. Many took the train to the seaside town in search of the deep black gem, which saw the amount of workshops rise considerably. At one point there was approximately 200 workshops in Whitby, which is difficult to comprehend considering the size of our charming town. That’s how in demand Jet was! Another astonishing figure is that 1400 men were hired to work in the Jet industry and with the town’s population reaching just over 4000 you can see the impact on Whitby. 




The First Whitby Jet Workshop 


The first opened in 1808 on Haggersgate, Whitby and by 1870 there was a couple of hundred scattered around the town. It was a retired Naval officer called Captain Tremlett who after witnessing how Amber was turned into beads in the Baltic wanted to do the same with Whitby Jet. He hired Mathew Hill, a lathe worker who had no previous experience with Jet, alongside Robert Jefferson and John Carter who used homemade tools to carve crosses and beads. The success of this workshop allowed for the trade of Jet to grow. 


In the Victorian era, Jet began to be mined as the amount sourced from coastal erosion was not nearly enough - a dangerous act to keep up with the popularity. On the whole most sold genuine Whitby Jet, however some tried to pass lookalikes off as the real deal causing people to question the authenticity. It was the foreign Jet, which was not to the same standard as that found along the North Yorkshire coastline that contributed to the decline of Whitby Jet. 




Step Inside a Victorian Workshop


As you can imagine, there is very little written evidence of the process of making Whitby Jet jewellery in the 1800s. The education act was not passed until 1871 so there’s no much documented on the processes during this time. We do know that the quality of work produced in Whitby was exceptional with pieces passed down through generations that remain in great condition today with just a little bit of restoration. Generally, the workshops ran as a production line with different areas and tool for each stage. They worked extremely hard to ensure that the popularity of the Jet was met with skill, precision and intricacy. 


The Step by Step Process


1. The Foreman’s Bench - Jet would be analysed carefully on the bench to spot any flaws to ensure that no time was wasted. 
2. The Grindstone - A dangerous piece of machinery at the workshop. The wheel was used to roughly create the desired shape of the jewellery or ornament but when used at high speed could be fatal. 
3. The Sawbust Box - The box allowed for the pieces of Jet to dry as sawdust absorbs any excess moisture. 
4. The Master Carver’s Bench - Only the most skilled worked at this bench carving the intricate designs popular of the era. They were very proud of their tools even though they were sometimes very basic. 
5. The Workshop Bogey - A stove that ensured that the black glue required by the craftsmen was kept hot. The bogey’s other job was to melt lead to create the milling wheels. 
6. The Milling Wheels - These were used to cut and grind simultaneously. The cut and groove patterns that were very popular of the time were created using the edge of the wheel.  
7. The Rouge Wheel - Earning its name from the red polishing cream that was applied, this wheel was used to create that well known Jet shine. Those who used this machine were given the nickname ‘the Whitby Red Devils’ due to the red spray that they were covered in alongside their blood stained bandages. 
8. The Walrus Hide Wheel - Another polishing wheel that was exclusively used to polish the flat areas at high speed. The Walrus hide was a very durable material and was easy to access due to Whitby’s association with whaling. 
9. The Linishing Wheel - The last polishing wheel in the workshop, which was used only on pieces with a curved edge. The rounded Jet would be dipped in a watery mixture of Derbyshire rotten stone and then polished on the soft leather wheel. 


10. The Pig Bristle Brush - Finally, a tiny pig bristle brush would successfully remove remove any pastes or mixtures from the jewellery to guarantee perfection. 


As you can now see, it wasn’t easy in the Victorian times - or today for that matter - to produce an exquisite piece of Whitby Jet jewellery. It’s an extremely hard task that takes skill, hard work and a lot of tools. 


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