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Good Mourning Jewelry: A Beginner's Guide To Victorian Era Jet

During the Victorian Era, deciding what you were going to wear to a loved one's funeral was a pretty big deal. It was so big a deal, in fact, that most towns had their own mourning jewelry shops. These shops catered to individuals in mourning, crafting and personalizing rings, necklaces, and brooches that memorialized the life of those who had passed. And, if you were among the wealthiest, classiest citizens of the Victorian Era, your jewelry would have been made from the top-of-the-line material of its time -- jet.

What Is Jet?

It may look like a gemstone and be called a gemstone, but jet is actually a mineraloid derived from fossilized wood. It comes from trees called monkey puzzle trees that were buried deep in the ground between 60 million and 300 million years ago. Use of the stone-like material in jewelry dates as far back as 17,000 B.C., but its popularity peaked with the widely sought after mourning jewelry of the Victorian Era.

Jet is always dark in color; it's usually black, but can also be found in very deep shades of red, dark blue, and brown. Jewelers of long ago loved it because it was lightweight and pliable, which made it far easier to work with than other materials in a time where tools were crude and scarce. 

How Do You Know You've Found An Authentic Piece?

When browsing jewelry pawn shops and vintage jewelry stores, you're bound to run into a fair share of jet lookalike pieces. Below are a few common types of jet knockoff jewelry along with a brief description of how you can differentiate each fake piece from real-deal jet.

Black Glass -- Black glass, also called French jet, makes for great imitation pieces because it can be polished to a fine shine just like authentic jet. To rule out a piece of black glass as jet, feel its surface with your fingertips. Real jet will feel room temperature while glass will feel cool to the touch. 

Vulcanite -- Vulcanite was patented by a well-known tire manufacturer in the mid-1800s as a jet look-alike for the middle and lower classes. Vulcanite is created with a mix of rubber and sulfur, making it relatively lightweight and soft like true jet. 

When shopping for jet jewelry, rule out vulcanite pieces by searching for mold marks. Vulcanite jewelry is less expensive than jet jewelry because it could be produced much faster by using jewelry molds. True jet is hand-carved and polished, so you'll find no mold marks on authentic pieces.

Also, vulcanite is highly susceptible to fading, leaving older pieces khaki-colored and cracked.

Black Onyx -- In its natural state, onyx never appears black in color. In order to achieve the dark, bold color of black onyx, quartz is soaked in sugar water and then doused in sulfuric acid and set afire. The process results in an extremely even finish on the stone. 

Besides being heavier than the real thing, you can often tell black onyx apart from jet by examining it for imperfections in color. The grain of the wood the jet once was may have left veins of slightly muted color while black onyx will look perfectly uniform in color throughout the whole stone. .  

Are There Anymore Tips For Finding Real Jet Mourning Jewelry?

There sure are. It was a common practice during the Victorian Era to incorporate the hair of a deceased loved one into mourning jewelry. If you find a black, shiny locket with a braided piece of hair inside, you're likely looking at a piece from the Victorian Era as opposed to a modern day knockoff piece.

You can also use the designs on a piece of jewelry to help you determine whether or not it's actually from the Victorian Era. Victorian Era mourning jewelry usually incorporated anchors, crosses, or a set of hands holding a flowered branch. Pearls were another common adornment of authentic mourning jewelry of that time.

Finally, while most authentic jet will shine with a fine polish, don't automatically rule a piece out as jet because it lacks luster. People of the Victorian Era designated different phases for the grieving process, and roughly polished jet was often used to symbolize that a person was in the early stages of grief. .

If you're new to Victorian Era mourning jewelry, don't be fooled by impostor pieces. Use the above information to guide you in your search for true jet -- the most sought after, classiest Victorian Era gemstone.