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All that Glitters: Vulcanite

The phenomenon of "mourning jewellery" has existed for hundreds of years, but it was Queen Victoria who was responsible for making it a widespread craze, after the death of her beloved husband, Albert, in 1861.

People express their grief by wearing specific pieces of jewellery, which is commonly made of vulcanite - a mass-produced rival to the gemstone jet. Vulcanite can be moulded to manufacture jewellery at a relatively low cost.

Queen Victoria

© National Media Museum @ Flickr Commons


Royal court in mourning

In the 19th century, real jet was the height of fashion, but its high cost made it something that the middle and lower classes couldn't afford. Yet mourning jewellery became increasingly popular after the tragic death of Prince Albert, at the age of only 42.

At the time, the cause of death was recorded as typhoid fever, but modern advances in medicine suggest he had a chronic medical condition, such as abdominal cancer, Crohn's disease, or renal failure, as it was recorded he had frequent bouts of stomach pain.

The royal couple had been married for 21 years and Queen Victoria was devastated. She fell into deep mourning and her grief was so severe that she decreed her royal courtiers must wear mourning attire for the next three years.

The only jewellery that could be worn by courtiers for one year was jet mourning jewellery. Most of the jet was from Whitby, but there were other materials that mimicked jet, including onyx, black glass known as French jet, black garnet and obsidian.


Mourning for the masses

The masses could not afford any of the expensive options but wished to copy Queen Victoria's mourning jewellery.

The 19th century was an era when many people died young (often in childhood) because of poor nutrition, unsanitary living conditions and the spread of disease. Childbirth was also a common cause of death for both mother and baby.

Yet it was also an era when feelings must be hidden, especially in public. Society was so polite that it was considered embarrassing to show any kind of feelings, so it wasn't the norm to tell anyone if you had recently lost a child, or been widowed.

Mourning jewellery was a clever way of telling people your status and it was worn as a memento of the person who had passed away.

For Queen Victoria, mourning for her beloved Albert lasted until her own death in 1901. The trend for mourning jewellery also continued among the public for the rest of the queen's life.


Vulcanite jewellery

Rather than the expensive options, the public would wear vulcanite jewellery, also known as "black jewellery" or ebonite. It was patented by rubber tyre manufacturer Charles Goodyear in 1846. The patent specified how rubber and sulphur were mixed together and heated to 115°C to produce vulcanite.

When manufactured properly, it was difficult to recognise a piece of vulcanite from actual jet. In the mid-19th century, it became the most mass-produced jewellery-making material after genuine jet. It could withstand polishing and would achieve a beautiful high-gloss sheen.

Vulcanite production was originally based on natural rubber, but various synthetic rubbers have been used in its production since the 1930s.

In many ways, vulcanite is just like jet, but over time it may fade - having a lower tolerance to sunlight. Today, it is becoming more difficult to find vulcanite jewellery in its original condition.

Although thousands of pieces were made in the Victorian era, they are now beginning to deteriorate, and even though vulcanite was classed as a cheaper alternative to jet back in the day, original pieces of mourning jewellery can fetch high prices on online auction sites, such as eBay.

Coruba is one of the UK's leading providers of high-quality rubber products and rubber matting. For enquiries, please call 01702 560194.

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