Shopping around for black jewellery, you many come across a term called ‘French Jet’. While it sounds romantic or even like a gemstone in its own right, French Jet simply a fancy word for good old black glass.
It became popular during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) when black jewellery was very fashionable. Genuine Jet (which is a real gemstone, most famously found in the Whitby area on the east coast of England) was the most sought after material for making black Victorian jewellery, but due to demand and increasing scarcity it was became expensive. Black glass was a much cheaper alternative.
Where the actual name French Jet comes from is unclear. The glass beads and stones themselves were usually made in the great glass making countries of Europe, such as Austria and the Czechoslovakia regions, and then sent through to other countries (including England and France) to be made into jewellery.
Other black materials used in Victorian mourning jewellery are: onyx, Vulcanite (a type of early rubber), Gutta Percha, genuine real jet, and bog oak (ancient fossilized wood type material usually found in Ireland).
Quick glance identity to mourning jewellery materials:
Bog Oak = usually only seen in brooches. Look under a magnifying glass to see wood grain texture. Often depicts Irish scenes, castles and motifs.
Gutta Percha = rare, similar to Vulcanite except one important difference – the taste test. Be careful with this, as moisture can permanently stain old Gutta Percha. With a dry tip of the tongue, gently press your tongue on the jewellery. Gutta Percha tastes very salty!
One of the most fascinating areas of vintage jewellery is the genre known as mourning jewellery. When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died at the early age 42, she was consumed with grief for many years. One of the ways she expressed this was to wear tokens of her mourning in the shape of jewellery. Whilst ‘mourning jewellery’ has been around for hundreds of years, it was the influential Queen Victoria who started the mourning fashion craze, which quickly spread amongst the masses. It was to last until her own death 40 years later.
What is mourning jewellery?
In times gone by, many people died at a young age because of poor diet and unhygienic lifestyles. Deadly disease was rife, and child birth was a major risk which put both mother and baby in life-threatening danger; death played a sad yet normal part of every day life. For the status obsessed and crushingly polite 19th century Victorians, mourning jewellery was a clever way of showing people what your status was (eg newly widowed or just lost a child) without the potential embarrassment of telling them. It was also worn as a sentimental reminder of the person who’d actually passed away.
The secret Language of Flowers, and hidden symbolism in Victorian mourning jewellery
The Victorians had strict codes of behavior and etiquette. Even expressing a personal feeling was often considered rude, so when someone needed to convey a message, they did so using silent symbolism, which involved giving gifts which symbolized words. For example, floral bouquets called ‘Tussie Mussie’s’ were popular during this period. They worked by letting the sender spell out a whole sentence in flowers (eg bell flowers meant “thinking of you“) to a desired recipient. Jewellery was often given for the same reason too – forget-me-not flower jewellery was especially popular as it meant ‘true love’.
Materials used to make mourning jewellery
Natural Whitby jet from Yorkshire was one of the most sought after materials for mourning jewellery due to the natural high quality finish which could be achieved. However, it quickly became scarce and expensive due to demand, so ‘fake’ jets such as black glass (romantically called French Jet) became a cheaper alternative, as did dyed black horn, early rubberized materials (such as Vulcanite), and bog oak from Ireland.
The Victorian era was a period of immense change and fast moving innovation. Up until the 19th Century, jewellery was individually hand made, usually with precious metals, gemstones and glass (a.k.a ‘paste’ which was an expensive luxury), and was the preserve of the rich upper classes. Mourning jewellery was one of the first type of jewellery that was mass produced in large numbers, and was so low priced it could be worn by the general population, not just the aristocracy.
You can learn how to identify jewellery materials such as Vulcanite and Whitby Jetin this blog post.
Collecting mourning jewellery
Original jewellery from the Victorian period was made to last, and can still be found quite easily today. Vulcanite, horn, Whitby Jet and bog oak brooches are common, though necklaces, rings and bracelets are rare and command much higher prices. The most sought after antique mourning jewellery is made from enameled precious metals and includes impossibly intricate hair weaving.
Finally, a type of jewellery called ‘Memento Mori’ (which is Latin for ‘Remember you will die’), at first looks quite similar to mourning jewellery. However, it dates back to around the 1600s, and was slightly different in that it was generally worn as a reminder of one’s own mortality and fleeting time on earth, rather than an actual mourning trinket of someone else’s death. You can recognize antique Memento Mori items straight away due to their disturbing imagery, which includes brooches depicting miniature paintings of coffins, rings set with tiny carved skulls instead of gemstones, and even pictures of rotting corpses on bracelets.
Buying and collecting vintage jewellery can be so addictive once you get started, so it pays to make sure what you’ve bought is the genuine article. Here are some tricks of the trade to help you get started! Though these tests aren’t 100% conclusive, they can guide you in the right direction when investigating what a material is.
***WARNING:The tests marked ‘invasive’ are here for historical information only – do not use them – they can seriously damage jewellery. ***
Tests for antique mourning jewellerymaterials such as Whitby Jet can be found at the very bottom of the page.
Amber is fossilized tree resin which is millions of years old. It can come in a variety of colours, from light yellow and green to dark brown-red and even rare glowing blue amber from the Dominican Republic. One of the first items used to make jewellery thousands of years ago, Amber has captivated us ever since. Unfortunately fake amber and the real thing can feel and look the exactly same, and your best bet is to get it tested by a proper expert, such as a long time amber collector (online gemology/ mineral forums are a good place to find some), registered auctioneers or fully qualified gemologist.
Test 1: There’s a lot of fake amber around the internet at the moment. The safest and least invasive test is the static test. Rub the amber vigorously against wool for a few seconds, then place next to a piece of paper, or a strand of hair. Real amber creates static electricity, and should gently pull the paper or hair towards it.
Test 2: Genuine amber usually floats in sea water, so try the salt water test (only works on amber without settings ie plain loose pieces or beads). Mix about 20-25 grams of salt into 200ml of water until it’s dissolved. Real amber generally floats, imitations tend to sink to the bottom.
Test 3: Invasive: The acetone test (try some brands of nail polish remover). Put some acetone on a tiny bit of cotton wool and rub it in an tiny inconspicuous area of the amber – acetone should not affect it. Copal or some plastics become slightly tacky. This test can massively decrease the value of you copal or plastic jewellery.
Test 4: Invasive: Hot needle test. Heat a fine sewing needle and gently pierce the amber with it (in an inconspicuous place so it will not be seen). Plastics will emit a chemical smell, amber will emit a sooty pine smell, with white smoke.This test can massively decrease the value of you amber jewellery.
Some amber will glow gently under UV light – but this isn’t a good test, as some plastic fake amber glows under UV light too.
This organic material comes in a variety of colours, though mainly red and sought after salmon pink. It can be carved into cameos or polished into beads, and has a long and distinguished history in jewellery. It was poular in Victorian jewellery as it was thought to ward off illness and disease. Coral is still popular today, and good quality vintage coral jewellery always demands a high price.
Test 1: You’ll need a good jewellers loupe. Inspect the coral closely with the loupe – it should have tiny ‘grains’ to it, similar to a grain of wood.
Test 2: Invasive: Take some lemon juice and a good magnifying glass/ jewellers loupe for this. In an inconspicuous place, place a tiny pin-head sized drop of lemon juice on the coral. Look at the area with a magnifying glass – tiny little bubbles should start to form from the coral if it is genuine. Thoroughly wash the item immediately after it happens to remove all traces of lemon juice – if you don’t this test will completely ruin the coral. This test can massively decrease the value of you coral jewellery.
The only real way to test diamonds yourself is to purchase a top quality diamond tester, which includes the Moissanite test (moissanite is a type of imitation diamond). It’s always best to take possible diamonds to your local jeweller or auctioneers for proper appraisal,because even if your jewellery is made from diamonds it can vary widely in price. The following are only stepping stones, and must not to be used as conclusive tests.
Test 1: Breath on the stone. A real diamond disperses the ‘breath’ mist immediately, while fakes usually remain misty for a few seconds
Test 2: Diamonds will scratch glass (though many other gemstones will too!)
Test 3: If the stone is loose (ie, not in a setting) then try reading a word in a newspaper through it – it should be impossible to make out.
Test 4: The cost – real diamonds are not cheap! If the price is too good to be true it usually is.
Test 5: Colour. Fakes such as Cubic Ziconias, Diamoniques(TM) and glass are usually much ‘whiter’ in appearance than a diamond, especially when they catch the light. Diamonds can vary in colour – some being an almost almost translucent grey.
Test 6: Some diamonds glow when held under black light (also known as UV or ultra violet light).
Genuine pearls feel slightly gritty when rubbed lightly against your teeth, while glass pearls or plastic pearls always feel smooth. Plastic pearls are light to the touch. Both glass and plastic pearls have a pearl coating which scratches or chips off – this cannot happen with real pearls. Real pearls are often slightly mis-shapen (unless very expensive).
The best way to see if gold is real is to find its hallmarks. However, some antique gold isn’t hallmarked, and you can buy cheap testing kits which use a special acid to test and grade the gold. Please use these kits with extreme caution – I’ve seen dreadful damage done to antiques by well meaning people trying to test their gold. Take your jewellery to a local jewelers or auction house for proper appraisal without damaging potentially valuable items.
Test 1: With a strong magnifying glass or jewelers loupe study the gold. Look at its edges, and the parts that come into direct contact with the skin closely. What kind of wear can you see? Can you see any fading, or another colour showing through underneath? If the item is scratched, can you see the colour of the metal inside the scratch – is it the same colour? Gold is always uniform throughout its depth ie any scratches or dents to gold should only reveal more gold underneath – never another colour.
Test 2: Grab a magnet, and hold it to the item. Precious metals are not magnetic.
As you become used to handling a lot of gold, you’ll develop a ‘feel’ for it. Many professionals can privately tell a good quality gold plated piece from a solid gold piece just by looking and briefly holding it, though this takes a time and practice!
Glass has been used as an imitation for gemstones and in costume jewellery for hundreds of years. It is always cold and hard to the touch. It can be opaque or clear, and molded into impressive shapes and designs. A hot pin test will never damage glass. When rhinestones (also called ‘pastes’) are used to imitate gemstones, they have often been coated at the back with a gold or silver coloured foil, and have a more ‘flat colour’ compared to the real thing. Glass can also be scratched, cracked and chipped quite easily.
The term ‘paste’ or ‘glass paste’ is the correct term used to describe any imitation stones made from glass. French Jet is another term you may often hear- this is simply fancy name for black glass.
Plastic is softer and warmer to touch than glass or gemstones. It is a specialist collectors area in its own right, with Bakelite in particular attracting a huge following and prices to match. Plastics come under ‘costume jewellery’, though many plastic Bakelite pieces can fetch over a thousand pounds at auction.
Plastics are most commonly used to imitate Amber, Jet or Tortoise Shell. It often has ‘seams’ where it has been joined or molded together during manufacture, where as genuine items don’t have these seams.
Bakelite jewellery in particular is flooded with fakes, and many sellers don’t know how to test for it properly. If you see an item of vintage Bakelite for sale always ask the seller how they know it’s genuine Bakelite. I always use the respected Simichrome test (along with my sense of smell) to make sure any Bakelite I have is genuine.
Testing Bakelite: Try and get hold of some Simichrome Polish, which is the easiest way to test for Bakelite. Put a dab of the polish onto cotton wool and rub the item. The cotton wool should turn a yellow colour. If you can’t get hold of any Simichrome, simply rub the item vigorously until hot – it should emit a distinctive chemical odour. Bakelite should never have any mold seams, and is very hard to the touch.
Invasive: Bakelite does not accept a hot needle (though a hot needle will badly damage the Bakelite by leaving a brown permanant scorch mark which decreases its value massively). Using this test will massively decrease the value of your jewellery.
MATERIAL USED IN MOURNING JEWELLERY:
Mourning jewellery has been around for centuries and was created and worn in remembrance of loved ones. It became hugely fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria. Mourning jewellery often had hidden meaning in it’s symbols (such as flowers or objects) – it could even reveal a Victorian woman’s status in life. Many pieces were typically made from black coloured materials, such as Whitby Jet, Onyx and glass. The richer members of society wore solid gold, sometimes decorated with fine black enamel and detailed with the loved ones woven hair.
This is a type of beautifully carved peat, and was used mainly by the people of Ireland for creating imitation Whitby Jet. It is usually very dark brown in colour.
Test 1: Will leave a brown streak on a white unglazed tile.
Test 2: Feels warm and lightweight (like wood) when held. If you hold a magnifying glass up to it you should see grains, like grains and patterns in a plank of wood. Will not usually be highly polished and shiny like Jet is.
Test 3: The actual design of the item can give bog oak away. Mourning/ Victorian era bog oak jewellery mostly came from Ireland, and usually has shamrocks, castles and harps carved into it.
This fossilized coal-like material was soft to work with, could be intricately carved, and was polished to a shiny finish. Antique Whitby Jet jewellery is today highly prized and desired. It is black in colour, and is prone to cracking and chipping with age.
Test 1: Will leave a dark brown streak on a white unglazed tile.
Test 2: Feels warm and lightweight to touch, similar to black plastic (never feels cold or heavy to hold like black glass). Usually has a good polish and an almost oily in texture like amber. Never truly reflective.
Test 3: Some jet creates static electricity when rubbed against wool. Do this, and then place the jet near a strand of hair or a piece of paper – the jet should pull it slightly towards it.
Test 4:Invasive; Hot pin test. Heat a needle and gently pierce an inconspicuous area of jet. It should not take a needle well, and emit a coal like odour (jet is fossilized coal). Using this test will decrease the value of your jewellery.
One of the earliest forms of ‘plastic’, Vulcanite was invented in the 1840s by combining certain types of tree sap with sulpher. It is usually black to mid-brown in colour, and is often in near perfect condition due to its durability (other than fading to a brown colour).
Test 1: A simple and very reliable rub test. Holding the jewellery, rub a part of the vulcanite vigorously until its quite hot and then smell. It should emit a rubber like (and sometimes slightly sulfuric) odour.
Test 2: Will leave a brown powdery streak on an unglazed white tile.
Never get Vulcanite wet – water will damage it.
Again, another rubber type material used, and is not commonly seen. Tests as for Vulcanite, though with one important and unmistakable addition – the taste test! Touch the Gutta Percha in a tiny inconspicuous area with the tip if the (dry) tongue – it will taste incredibly salty. Never get Gutta Percha damp nor wet as water stains and damages it.
A fancy name for black glass. Cold and hard to touch, and will not be damaged by a hot pin test.
Another material used to imitate Whitby Jet, horn was molded into desired shapes, and then dyed black.
Test 1: Will sometimes leave a grey powdery streak when rubbed on an unglazed white tile.
Test 2: When held to the light the edges are often translucent.
Test 3:Invasive: When gently pierced with a hot needle in an inconspicuous place horn will emit an odour of burning hair. Using this test will damage and massively decrease the value of your jewellery.