Gagates was the name applied to Jet in ancient times, as stated in Chapter 34 in The Natural History of Gems or Decorative Stones, written by Charles William KIng in 1847. The gemstone was named after the no longer existing town of Gages in the city of Lycia. Gagates have been known to history since the times of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age. The descriptive word, gagates, is thought to have originated from the Lycian language, an ancient precursor to Greek that we know ultimately became the foundation for our English alphabet.
It is a light, porous, and brittle stone that is black in color and described by King as closely resembling wood in appearance. He stated that, conversely, oil quenches it while water ignites it. An odd statement that may or may not be true, but adds to conversation about how written and spoken language along with their associative meanings transform throughout time. So, too, does visual language. The known roots of each of these kinds of languages, written, spoken, and visual, remains inside our vast and growing branches of knowledge and are undoubtedly interconnected in the experiences of most human beings.
As an aside, it had been that gagates, or Jet, was thought to provide six remedies to mankind due to its strong sulphuric odor and burning properties:
- the fumes emitted from it were said to keep away serpents
- it was described as being instrumental in keeping away hysterical affections
- it was used to detect tendencies toward epilepsy
- it was used to test virginity
- once boiled it was used to cure toothaches
- when combined with wax it was known to aid people with scrofula, a form of tuberculosis
Personally, I have only ever known Jet as a material used to make the buttons for mourning clothing that was predominantly worn by women during the Victorian Era. While in Boston, I found a collection of Jet, Jet with horn, and Jet with glass buttons in an antique store. Each one had been carefully wired to a brittle and fading paper-covered board. What struck me at the time was how no two buttons were alike. I pondered how they came together in that one small space. Had someone collected them from early generations of family member’s shredded silk dresses (over time Victorian silk fell apart leaving only hardware and decorative elements behind) or had they been purchased by a collector of grief relics. That no buttons were alike and that they must have adorned just as many dresses as they were in quantity represents to me the possibility of many, many deaths and years of sadness. Or at the least, they represented how women tolerated social conventions of the time. So much is lost in the memory of objects. The entire lifetime of a human being is gone if nothing has been written to fuel our curiosity or to feed our awareness. Just as interesting is my understanding that Jet buttons worn on widow’s dresses were not associated with any of the aforementioned “cures” of the 1800s, that I am aware of.
I view this collection of Jet buttons as an amalgamation of language that has changed over time, and a resurfacing of meaning based upon my singular knowledge about them as a form of personal identity. Not only can the buttons be perceived to represent one person’s collection of beautiful grief objects, they can be thought to represent the experiences of possibly 66 human beings who lost a loved one.
And to add to the perplexity of it all, the entirety of my antique store find was covered with a hair net.