Identifying Gutta Percha, Bog Oak, Jet and Vulcanite has long plagued antique jewelry aficionados. This blog will help you separate these substances in no time!

When I got a question on my Facebook page about how to identify these substances and what the differences were between some of them, I was as happy as a kid in a candy store. I got to look into books I hadn’t picked up in years and even go online to the really geeky sites on things like the History of Plastics. It was my own little nerd fest of one.

I was asked some really serious questions about identification so I’m going to get a bit technical, but it will be worth it, I promise. When I’m done, you’ll be picking out gutta percha from vulcanite and bog oak from jet to the amazement of all your friends.

Let’s start with Bog Oak since it’s one of the easiest things to identify. First, Bog Oak isn’t just oak. It can actually be three different wood species: Pine, Yew and Oak. Each of these turns a different color after thousands of years of exposure to tannins in bogs so the color itself is a good way to identify it. Oak changes to an almost black color, yew changes to a reddish brown and pine turns a golden yellow. None of the other substances are a golden yellow or reddish brown so if it’s one of those two colors, it’s bog oak.

Shamrock and gold Bog Oak pin

Shamrock and gold Bog Oak pin

Second, all those species of wood will have one thing that the other substances will never have: growth lines! Trees grow and we are all familiar with the growth rings of trees. If you look at bog oak jewelry, you will see growth lines with a standard 10x power jeweler’s loupe. Since none of the other substances will have growth lines, bog oak is the easiest to identify.


Bog Oak showing growth lines under 10x magnification

Bog Oak showing growth lines under 10x magnification

Third, the subject matter will give away bog oak very often before you even take a closer look. Bog oak jewelry often has an Irish motif so you’ll encounter jewelry like shamrocks, harps, and castles.


Identifying Bog Oak can be as easy as looking at the Motif

Identifying Bog Oak can be as easy as looking at the Motif

Now, start thinking about how jewelry is made from each of these substances. Bog Oak has to be carved so you are going to see tool marks on any jewelry that’s made from bog oak.

JET: The only other of the four substances that’s remotely natural and therefore carved is jet. Jet is like “petrified” wood, but according to GIA, it’s a form of lignite coal. It’s decayed wood that was compressed under layers of sediment and pressure to form a coal-like substance. Jet started to form in the Jurassic period. Bog oak became what it is only a couple thousand years ago. That’s a huge difference. Whereas with bog oak, you can still see that it is wood, in the case of jet, it’s not really wood anymore. It’s more like stone than wood so you won’t see growth lines. Jet can take a very high polish so you will see a surface more like glass. Since glass was the biggest imitator of jet, you have to worry more about mixing up jet and glass than mixing up jet and other Victorian jewelry substances like gutta percha and vulcanite. The picture below from Mourning Glory Antiques shows the high polish of Jet.

whitby jet

Jet takes a high polish and can often be confused with glass



The real question here should be “How do I tell the difference between jet and glass?” That’s a simpler answer than you would expect also. I read a secret with jet a long time ago. Jet used to be called “black amber.” It was not only found alongside amber in alluvial deposits, it reacted like amber. Amber, if you will remember from my video blog on How To Identify Amber Without Damaging It, will develop static electricity when rubbed on wool or silk. You can use the static to pick up small bits of paper. The same is true of jet! Jet will develop a static charge and also pick up small bits of paper. So tear up some paper to test for jet.  Another test for jet is to rub it on the unglazed or rough edge of the bottom of a porcelain cup. Jet will leave a black streak on the porcelain but glass will not. Glass is also cold to the touch and jet will be closer to room temperature. By the way, “French Jet” is glass.


That takes care of the “carved” materials. I say that because knowing how these things are made and what they are made from will help you identify them. Bog oak and jet are carved. Anything carved will have tool marks. If it has tool marks, it’s either bog oak or jet. The color of the material will help you separate them, along with the presence or lack of visible growth lines.


Now… gutta percha and vulcanite.

Gutta percha is a sort of latex or resin derived from the tree sap of various trees in the Pacific Rim. It was one of the first thermoplastics and is historically important because of that. Interestingly, little jewelry was made from gutta percha. Most of the gutta percha went into “functional” things like buttons, wax seals, belts, boot soles and according to the History of Plastics website, a lot of golf balls in 1848. If it’s jewelry, it is RARELY Gutta Percha.

Most Gutta Percha was used for things other than jewelry, like these golf balls.

Most Gutta Percha was used for things other than jewelry, like these golf balls.

Gutta percha was also used to make other things, like the mold for the golf balls above. (From a sold Bonham's Auction)

Gutta percha was also used to make other things, like the mold for the golf balls above. (From a sold Bonham’s Auction)

Gutta percha is light sensitive and has a tendency to turn brown with exposure to light (and oxygen) over the years. Most of the gutta percha jewelry seen today is brown and not black like it was originally. The color is a clue to its material nature. Unless it was hermetically sealed after it was made, it will have been exposed to light and OXYGEN. What is not exposed to oxygen?? It will therefore have turned a brown-ish color. Gutta percha is also molded, not carved, so there won’t be any visible tool marks on the piece. Since it’s basically a rubber-like material, it will smell like rubber when it’s rubbed briskly on fabric. The most effective way to tell if your jewelry is gutta percha is to TASTE IT. Seriously.  Please wash it before and after tasting it and in fact, taste it at your own risk. But if you choose to taste it, it will taste salty. If it doesn’t taste salty, it’s not gutta percha.


Vulcanite is the last of the materials. Another rubber-like substance made from more tree sap mixed with sulphur, it will also be molded and not carved.

Vulcanite is molded, not carved.

Vulcanite is molded, not carved.

The bracelet above from the Art of Mourning is a perfect example of molded jewelry. Look closely at the cross and the possible cluster of grapes (?) under the oak leaves. Do you see how rounded the edges are? Anything carved would have a much sharper edge. That “rounded-ness” is a sure way to tell if something is molded.


Most of the jewelry that you see identified as gutta percha is in reality mis-identified vulcanite. Vulcanite can also turn to a khaki brown color like gutta percha; will smell like rubber when rubbed on material; and also leave a brown streak on the unglazed bottom of a porcelain cup. You can tell the difference between vulcanite and gutta percha by choosing to taste it. If it’s salty, it’s gutta percha. If it’s not, it’s vulcanite. More often than not, it will be vulcanite. Like I said, most of what you will see as gutta percha will actually turn out to be vulcanite, so if you skip the taste test and call it vulcanite, you will probably be correct. Vulcanite will most often remain black in color while Gutta Percha will turn brown-ish. If you need to be 100% certain, go ahead and bite the bullet so to speak!

Now you know more than anyone should ever know about alternative Victorian jewelry materials and small sporting balls. You may now go forth and impress antique store owners and golfers with your new found knowledge.

If you have jewelry made from any of the materials in this blog, I want to hear from you! Send me a picture of how you wear your jewelry on my Facebook page or post it and tag me on Instagram. I’d love to feature you wearing your jewelry in an upcoming blog!

Now that you know what mourning jewelry ISN’T, I thought I’d show you some jewelry that IS! The following pieces may not look that much different, but the meaning behind the items changes from the images in the last two posts.

Circa 1780's mourning clasp and bracelet from the Walter's Art Museum

Circa 1780’s mourning clasp and bracelet from the Walter’s Art Museum


Georgian mourning jewelry is different than Victorian mourning jewelry. The Georgian pieces are filled with Neo-Classical symbolism. Urns, Willow Trees, Plinths and women in white dominate the imagery in the earlier jewelry. In the later Victorian pieces, the symbolism changes to a more purely decorative rendition. The colors of the pieces themselves changed drastically between the time periods also. Georgian mourning jewelry is like a Neo-Classical painting with a white back ground contrasted against the ubiquitous black in the Victorian pieces.


These two pieces are typical Georgian mourning pieces. They are navette shaped, which some suggest resembles the shape of  a tear. They contain all the images of mourning at the time- the urn and the plinth, willow trees in the background and the women in white. One of things that you may not know about these kinds of pieces is that the sepia pigment with which they are painted is made from masticated hair. Look closely- Do you see how some parts look textured? They are! The texture is actually hair mixed in with the sepia ink.

Late 1700's Neo-Classical mourning brooch

Late 1700’s Neo-Classical mourning brooch

Navette shaped mourning brooch, late 1700's

Navette shaped mourning brooch, late 1700’s

Victorian mourning jewelry on the other hand, is completely different.

Queen Victoria wore black after the death of Prince Albert and for the rest of her life. This demanded that the rest of the country wear black, so black jewelry became the standard in fashion. Whitby jet was one of the most sought after materials of the day for its glossy black color.

Whitby Jet from the British Museum

Whitby Jet from the British Museum


Gradually, the restrictions on mourning clothing and jewelry lessened and jewelry began to incorporate pearls and other colors. (There was a proper way to dress while in mourning. White could be worn in a later stage of mourning, called Half Mourning.  It’s really quite fascinating.)

Onyx and pearl Victorian Amphora style earrings. The pearls indicate that these earrings were used for a period of mourning known as Half Mourning.

Onyx and pearl Victorian Amphora style earrings. The pearls indicate that these earrings were used for a period of mourning known as Half Mourning.


The Victorians went a bit overboard with the symbolism of the period. As I said in a previous post, entire books have been written on the flowers and plants that dominated the jewelry. I can’t possibly discuss all of them, but a few stand out. The Forget Me Not was a popular choice for obvious reasons and remained popular into the early 20th Century.

Forget Me Not flowers were an obvious choice of mourning symbolism during the Victorian era.

Forget Me Not flowers were an obvious choice of mourning symbolism during the Victorian era.

Not all the mourning jewelry of the time, like the ones above, contained hair. Some pieces, however, in both the Georgian and Victorian periods were comprised of little but hair!

Mourning bracelet make almost entirely of hair.

Mourning bracelet make almost entirely of hair.

One of the best things about mourning jewelry is that many pieces are engraved with dates- especially the date of the death of the person for whom the piece is honoring.  That means that determining its age is as simple as looking at the date inscribed on it. If you can’t tell the era in which the piece was made by style alone, simply look for the dates! That means that studying mourning jewelry is a good way to learn to circa date non-mourning jewelry. Since jewelry styles often had similar themes, you can begin to circa date other jewelry by comparing the styles of the pieces to mourning jewelry that contain dates.

Many people collect mourning jewelry. If you do, I hope this helps you as you come across pieces for sale. It may have even helped you determine the age of some of the pieces within your own collection. If that is the case, then please leave me a message on my Facebook page or Instagram and let me know!

Perhaps you can’t see yourself collecting or wearing mourning jewelry. That’s ok. The wonderful thing about studying mourning jewelry is that we have so much of it remaining today, so it really helps us see how styles and the people wearing those styles changed throughout the ages. I hope this series of blogs helped give you a glimpse into the recent past and will perhaps bring some new knowledge into your future.

Did you know that not all “mourning jewelry” is actual “mourning jewelry”? In this short series, I’ll explain the many types of what we all call mourning jewelry today, what they actually mean and how they developed into the types of jewelry that we still wear today.


17Th Century gold and enamel "Death's Head" ring from the Ashmolean Museum

17Th Century gold and enamel “Death’s Head” ring from the Ashmolean Museum


There are three categories of what most people refer to as Mourning Jewelry and not all of it is used for mourning- Commemorative Jewelry, Sentimental Jewelry and Mourning jewelry. Mourning Jewelry hit its apex during the Victorian period when Queen Victoria was mourning the death of Albert. Since there is a long standing tradition of emulating the court style, two countries followed suit, carrying with them a two continent fad. The tradition of mourning jewelry was in existence long before that, however. The Victorian period was simply the height of the tradition. In reality, the existence of wearing jewelry to commemorate a person’s life has been around long time. This will focus on the 300 year time span from the Georgian era to the turn of the 20th Century, but first, let’s take a brief look at how we got to that point starting the 1600’s.

Part I- Commemorative Jewerly and Memento Mori Jewelry

Commemorative Jewelry was used as a way to remember an event or person. It often contained hair, but more often included a portrait of a person or a motto.

One of the most famous examples of this are rings made to commemorate the execution of King Charles I. Examples of rings can be found containing a portrait of the King and often the initials CR engraved on them. This example from Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill collection made around 1649-1650.

Commemorative ring of King Charles I From Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill Collection

Commemorative ring of King Charles I From Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection

This is one of only seven rings given at the burial of King Charles I. It contains a portrait miniature of the King, behind it, a death’s head, the initials CR and between it the motto “Prepared Be to Follow Me”. It is a prime example of commemorating an event. It is also important because after these rings were given, it sparked a new custom of a person bequeathing money from their estates to have “remembrance” rings made and distributed after their deaths.  (Remember that the rest of the people in a country emulated Royalty and their actions).

This example of the King Charles I ring contains an important concept of the progression of this type of jewelry -Momento Mori Jewelry. His ring contained the phrase, “Prepared be to Follow Me” which is an extension of the popular motto “Remember You Must Die” found in the Momento Mori rings of the 16th and 17th Centuries. These types of rings carried similar symbols of mourning jewelry, but they were different concepts.  Memento Mori jewelry was worn by the learned of its day and not intended as Mourning Rings.  Instead these rings showed it’s wearer to be a philosophical thinker, openly acknowledging the fact that we all must die. The symbols of these rings like skulls, skeletons, crossbones, serpents (symbols of wisdom and eternity) and hourglasses eventually found their way into the mourning jewelry of later years. In this time however, they were not yet used as mourning tokens.  They were powerful symbols and contained a language all their own.

Take a look at some momento mori pieces and you’ll see what I mean.

Gold "Death's Head" band from the British Museum 1673

Gold “Death’s Head” band from the British Museum 1673

It was a simple way to show that you were a member of the learned elite of the time. This was a time when most people could not read or write except perhaps in the most rudimentary of ways. The majority of people who could read or write were very wealthy. This was a way to show that you were a member of that segment of the population.  In essence, it was a 17th Century status symbol.

By the 1690’s, Death Head Rings were adapted to include a lock of hair of the deceased. During the first few decades of the 1700’s and into the Mid 1700’s, these rings were beginning to morph into the mourning rings we know today and were increasingly popular throughout the next two centuries.

death head ring

Memento Mori Jewelry is different than Mourning Jewelry

A 17th Century  Momento Mori slide showing the Skull and Corssbones, the Hourglass, a serpent and staff and double Phi, most likely signifying the person’s initials PP. The chalice on the right hand side could be the cup of the last supper, an indication of a religious leaning or it could be “the cup of learning” and another reference to a person’s high status within the community.  With the inclusion of the serpent and the staff and serpent, other references to wisdom, I’m going to say that this ring was from a very educated person whose learning was very important to him (I’m saying “him” since most women who were educated at that time didn’t announce that fact.) Another reason for my inclination that this slide was for a learned man is the fact that his initials are written in Greek, indicating that this man was classically trained.  Do you see how a possible story of a person’s life begins to unfold as you interpret the symbols? These symbols are important not only in and of themselves, but because once you learn about them, you can begin to decipher the story they tell.

In a time when the average life span was 40 years or less and death was a constant companion, these symbols provided the people of these eras a way to focus on the beauty of life. These rings and the jewelry that followed are not morbid pieces of history, but a living reminder of the wonders of our own lives. They give us a way to remember the beliefs that are important to us and those we loved.

The thing to remember about the King Charles I ring is that England was at the start of its own civil war. There were people who were loyalist supporters and people who supported the opposing regime. People who wore these rings were expressing not only a political leaning but a complete way of life. Just like Democrats and Republicans in the United States wear the symbols of their parties and use them to express a belief in the way they want the country to be, these people were using these rings to express the same thing. They are commemorating a belief system, hence the use of the commemorative jewelry.

As the decades progressed, commemorative jewelry took on new meaning: to commemorate a particular person’s life. The Georgian Era is filled with these types of commemorative pieces, which I’ll talk about in my next blog.

Join me again as I show you the progression of mourning jewelry and what hair in jewelry really meant.

…..coming soon Part II- Sentimental Jewelry

Sentimental jewelry often gets mistaken for Mourning Jewelry. It’s easy to do since so many pieces of Sentimental Jewelry contain hair. It is its own category of jewelry but I wanted to include it here since so many people just assume that any jewelry containing hair must be mourning jewelry. Sentimental Jewelry is sometimes called Remembrance Jewelry. It’s difficult to tell the difference between remembrance jewelry (given as a sign of affection) and mourning jewelry (worn to commemorate the dead). I’ll do my best to explain the differences here. Read more »