Possession: Props to the supporting role of Whitby jet in the film…and as a collectible and current jewel


Courtesy of USA FILMS

Modern-day women continue to be taken by the sentimentality and symbolism of romantic and mourning jewelry-pieces in the height of  fashion during the Victorian Era, while experimental contemporary designers have taken to working in some of the materials that were made popular during the day.

In keeping with this time period, I have seen fine examples of antique Whitby jet at antique fairs and shops recently as well in the current collection of  talented UK designer Jacqueline Cullen who has transformed the gem with a ultra-modern sensibility.

And so I decided to  stream a film that I had seen and written about in 2002, Possession (USA films) which was directed by Neil LaBute and adapted from A.S. Byatt’s award-winning novel. The movie travels between two time periods and two loves stories that take place in present day and Victorian England.  Not only did the production designer capture the interiors and exteriors of  both periods brilliantly but there is a  black carved floral Whitby jet brooch that is worn by both Gwyneth Paltrow’s  and Jennifer Ehle’s  characters and has a supporting role in  the story line of the film.


Maude Bailey (Paltrow) is a brilliant English academic and Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), is an upstart American scholar, on a fellowship in London to study the great Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), the poet laureate to Queen Victoria, best known for his collection of poetry dedicated to his wife.

Before the works of Ash go on centenary exhibition, Bailey and Mitchell discover a cache of love letters that appear to be written to Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle), another poet of the day. They follow a trail of clues across England to the Continent to uncover the romantic journey that Ash and La Motte took over a century earlier.

Bailey, a descendant of La Motte, owns the black brooch that has been in her family for years. In unraveling bits and pieces of the Victorian love affair, the modern day Bailey and Mitchell go to Whitby, a suburb of Yorkshire and stumble on a charming antique shop, specializing in jet jewelry. They discover that Ash had originally bought and given the brooch to La Motte as a token of his love in 1859.

Production designer, Lucian Arrighi explains, “I actually purchased the brooch in a local antique shop in Whitby quite similar to the store represented in the movie. It is true to the period and carved with a spray of English roses.”

Jet was used for jewelry and body adornment and was one of the earliest gemstones known to man, dating back to the Stone Age. It reached its height of popularity in the later half of the 19th century (part of the time in which the film takes place).

Although Whitby jet is actually 180-million year-old fossilized wood, it is considered a gemstone and was found in mass quantities surrounding the small seaside town of Whitby on the Northeast Coast of England.

Queen Victoria’s affinity for the gem contributed to the huge success of the jet industry. She deemed that it should be worn at court and then, when Prince Albert died, she chose it as her gemstone to represent her mourning. Although the stone became largely associated with mourning pieces, it was also used for beautifully carved floral and cameo-style brooches, earrings and long strands of faceted beads. Whitby jet is most prized due to its durability, allowing it to be carved into intricate designs and motifs. It also produced the highest shine when crafted into jewelry and has withstood the test of time, whereas jet from other parts of the world can crack much more easily.

It has also turned up in present-day collections such as that of Jacqueline Cullen,  (see more of her collection here)  who creates streamlined, geometric and modernistic shapes from the material and adds diamonds and colored gemstones for a hint of light and shimmer. Cullen began working with the material to break the association with mourning pieces and bring the gem into a whole new realm of design. Cullen’s supplier, who lives in Whitby, goes down the cliffs on a rope into the caves to bring the jet out. She employs a husband and wife lapidary team, who live in Whitby, and also has carved the gem herself, particularly for the more involved shapes.

As for the film, it’s a must-see, if you have never watched it. It successfully contrasts the Victorian and contemporary love stories, glides effortlessly between the eras, and re-creates and balances the physical and mental landscapes of the two time periods.

The same can be said about the late 19th century pieces that speak to the reign of Queen Victoria and jewelry’s history. The film features an antique piece representative of those that are highly collectible, while Jacqueline Cullen’s pieces also speak to the woman of today and the current jewelry climate where the past and present forecast the future.

All Possession Stills by David Appleby, USA Films