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Medieval & Early Modern Jet Jewellery

The regard with which Royalty and aristocracy held jet during the early modern period was akin to that of pearls and diamonds. It was worn with class and elegance by noblewomen keen to portray a pious and modest image at a time of conflicting religious views and political unrest throughout 16th century England.

Whitby’s famous Benedictine Abbey built in 657AD was ruined and robbed of its wealth and contents by Henry VIII in 1540; all part of his ambition to break from Rome, overthrow Catholicism and become supreme head of the Church of England. And yet despite this stark warning in the very heart of Whitby, jet continued to be made into rosary beads and items of a Catholic nature, as well as more traditional jewellery styles. 

As well as being decorative, jet was also thought to remedy certain afflictions and believed to carry with it magical powers. The fumes of burning jet were said to drive away serpents, whilst a mixture of powdered jet with wine was believed to cure toothache. Jet was also used as a test for virginity; this involved jet being placed in water and handed to the female to drink, if she was not a virgin then the jet would have an immediate diuretic effect, whereas there would be no reaction if she was a virgin.

At this time, there was an even greater and more booming jet industry occurring in Spain, at the Azabacheria or ‘Place of Jet’ near to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Spanish jet workers were organised into guilds called the Brotherhood of Jet Workers, established in 1443. There was a thriving trade in Spanish jet from around the 13th century until its decline in the 17th century.

Most jet carvings being produced in Spain were Catholic devotional objects and amulets, including rosary beads, rings, crosses and sculptures of the Virgin and Child. One of the most popular items purchased by visitors to the city were carvings of St. James, the Patron Saint of Pilgrimage. Towards the end of the 17th century jet carvings began to assume themes of a more secular nature including mourning jewellery for women and a powerful charm known as the Higa, or ‘phallic hand’, an ancient protective symbol given to children to wear as protection against illness.

The Spanish jet industry began to decline towards the end of the 17th century however, there is still a small jet trade in the city of Santiago de Compostella today.