No-one would have suspected that the death of a royal prince over 150 years ago would lead to the emergence of an industry in Whitby which continues to this day.
Queen Victoria famously went into a period of prolongued mourning following the death of her husband Prince Albert from tyhphoid fever in December 1861.
The previous year, following the death of her uncle George IV, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had issued a judgement saying that mourning clothing should include the ornament jet, so despite the heartbreak, it transpired she was still a dedicated follower of fashion and she donned the gem.
During the 19th century it was the Queen that was the fashion trendsetter and, what the court was wearing - other people followed suit - and so demand for jet grew.
It was during the Victorian times that the popularity of Whitby jet was at its highest.
It just so happened that in 1860, local man James Storr had established a jet jewellery shop nestling in the corner of historic Church Street which made and sold what was fast becoming a sought after material.
Business for Mr Storr and the other jet businesses springing up around him boomed.
As items were hand made, more and more men had to be trained up (serving a seven year apprenticeship) and the industry provided jobs and income for many local families.
Mr Storr’s shop became what is now known as W Hamond’s and remains on the same site as the original premises.
Queen Victoria’s desire to display Whitby jet wasn’t to be the only connection with royalty. In 2006 Hamond’s made a special pendant which it sent to Her Majesty to mark her 80th birthday. The commemmorative item of jewellery had a piece of Blue John gemstone on one side, Whitby jet on the other and was set in 18ct yellow gold with six drop diamonds and the inscription ‘80 glorious years’.
The 150 years since W Hamond’s was established may have seen several advances in technology such as the use of computer generated designs and lasers for cutting but, when it comes to how the jewellery is made nothing really much has changed.
Rebecca Tucker (26) has been W Hamond’s jeweller for three years after studying jewellery and silversmithing at the University of Birmingham.
She said: “We do have advances like computer aided design and that is a huge improvement in the industry and only in the last few years but other than that we still use grinding wheels, the same machines that have been used for years and hand tools like mallets, saws and files - it is all very quaint and oldy worldy.”
Although mining for jet is now illegal, it is local people who still source the raw material by combing the beach and the shoreline for washed up pieces of the gem before taking their bounty to Hamond’s to be weighed in in the hope they might make a few quid.
First though, it has to be tested to make sure it is jet and tested again to ensure it is gem quality and good enough to be made into jewellery.
Rough jet is polished and checked for flaws, cut and sliced on a gem cutter and then filed to whatever shape is needed on a diamond grinding wheel.
The stone will then be set, using jeweller’s cement, into silver or gold depending on what is being made - which could be earrings, pendants, bracelets or pretty much whatever the customer asks for.
In the summer months a lot of Rebecca’s time is taken making bespoke orders for customers. In the quieter winter months she will work on stock for the shop with it taking little over an hour to make a ring from start to finish.
But, it is not just jewellery W Hamond’s gets asked for.
The most unusual request came from the Yorkshire Museum after the discovery of a 2,000 year-old broken hair curler with the remains of a Roman woman under York train station. Hamond’s were asked to re-create the design from scratch which took a painstaking four weeks to complete.
The Victorian association with mourning and jet though is no longer, and the product is enjoying a renaissance among the younger generation.
Jet is often considered as statement jewellery and the larger pieces that are found are used for such. However, there is danger of there being a shortage of jet but it could prove to make the popular Whitby souvenir even more desirable.
Rebecca said: “We are continually trying to push the product of jet and Whitby and its appeal to the mass market but we are limited in what we can do because of the shortage. I guess where most jewellers can mass produce many products, we are limited.
“It is nice in a way because it makes jet more special but I can forsee a situation where it becomes so scarce and rare it is an even more specialised area. People will have to spend a lot of money to purchase jet.
“I can’t ever imagine it dying out, people will still find and be able to work it but it will be more specialised as that happens and I can see that happening already.”