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Home » The Human Element » Long before we burned coal, we made jewellery out of it

Long before we burned coal, we made jewellery out of it

Jet badge with St. James the Great, 16-century Spain

PortandTerminal.com, January 24, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Humankind’s first relationship with coal was probably not as a fuel source, but rather as a gemstone. Coal can be a lustrous rock and is easily carved which made it ideal for craftsmen to work with.

A lump of coal

We know for example that the Aztecs used coal both for ornaments as well as fuel. The Romans also used coal, or “jet” to be more precise, for making ornaments and jewellery of which many pieces still survive to this day. Jet is is a type of lignite (also called brown coal) and is a precursor to coal. It is also considered a gemstone and is the origin of something being described as “jet black”.

During the Roman occupation of England, jet was excavated and used to make jewellery, dagger handles, carvings, dice and hairpins that were exported throughout the Roman Empire.

Roman jet finger ring, AD 280-400
Roman jet finger ring, AD 280-400
Roman jet cameo depicting Medusa, created circa AD 43 - AD 410
Roman jet cameo depicting Medusa, created circa AD 43 – AD 410 (Yorkshire Museum)
Roman finger ring with jet insert, 3rd - 4th century A.D.
Roman finger ring with jet insert, 3rd – 4th century A.D.
4th Century Roman Jet Hairpin, UK.
4th Century Roman Jet Hairpin, UK. © The Trustees of the British Museum

During the Medieval era, jet was used by monks in England to carve rosaries and religious jewellry. In other locations around Europe and North America, where jet was mined, it was primarily carved into amulets, religious items, and jewellry.

Medieval jet crucifix, 12th-century, Cambridge, England
Medieval jet crucifix, 12th-century, Cambridge, England
Jet badge with St. James the Great, 16-century Spain
Jet badge with St. James the Great, 16-century Spain

Jet had a resurgence in popularity in Victorian England in the 19th century where it was used to create “mourning jewellery”. Forty years of mourning began with the death in 1861 of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, and ended only with her own death in 1901.

Victorian jet mourning jewellery, 19th-century England
Victorian jet mourning jewellery, 19th-century England

Jet’s rich black color made it a very popular gem during this period. After the period of mourning ended it is perhaps not surprising that a more colorful palette was welcomed and Jet and other black jewellry that had been in such high demand, quickly fell into obscurity. 

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