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Whitby Jet Bead

Whitby Jet beads were handcrafted in a wide variety of sizes, from that of a pea to a ping-pong ball. They were also made in a multitude of different shapes, patterns and designs, the most popular was round, and either smooth, faceted or carved. These jet turners were called ‘bead men’ and it was said that they could be recognised on the streets of Whitby by their bandaged finger ends. The process began with the spar, a thin layer of shale which appears on the surface of mined jet, being removed and a rough square shape chopped out. It was then shaped into a sphere on a grit wheel and drilled before the pattern was applied.

The process of faceting jet beads was called canting, while the facets themselves were called cants. The canting was carried out by pressing the face of the bead against a revolving lead wheel, or a wheel of buffalo leather charged with abrasive. The craftsman would start at the drill hole, working down to the girdle until it met with the drill hole at the other side.

As well as being faceted, beads were also carved into popular plant and flora designs. This style of carving was known in the trade as cut and shaded. The most favoured patterns were the rose and the fern, although combinations of the designs were often used. Beaded necklaces could vary in style and length, from a choker consisting of two or three rows, to extremely long lengths of single row beads, the latter were known as guards not necklaces. 

One of the more popular Victorian Whitby jet necklace designs comprised of two or three rows of beads at the front, which would lead up to a spacer plate on either side, narrowing down to just one row of beads, which met with a clasp at the back. It is uncanny how similar this formation is to that of the jet necklaces made thousands of years ago, throughout the Bronze Age.

It is a common misconception that Whitby jet chains were carved entirely from one single piece of Whitby jet. Instead, individual links were alternately carved between one whole link and another link in two halves, they were then put together and secured with a pin made from two base metal wires twisted together and the jet worker’s special glue. Links could be oval, round, square or marine style, and were used as necklaces as well as watch chains by both men and women.