Is Whitby Jet monkey puzzle wood?

Is Whitby Jet monkey puzzle?

Warning: Potentially upsetting content.

Inside all children is a desire to learn funky new things about the world, especially if they’re random facts that completely blow our minds. Our spongey little grey cells, however, are vulnerable to all sorts of adult deceptions, and almost everybody remembers a time when a cherished childhood myth was shattered. I for one never question the fact that the piece of chewing gum I swallowed in junior school would still be hanging out in my intestinal tract at my high school graduation. Likewise, on the discovery that Vikings did not wear horned helmets, I was left deflated, vulnerable and with an overwhelming lack of trust in grown-ups.

Viking reenactor with Whitby jet beads
The first time you realise that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets…

Childhood is, after all, a fertile incubator for myths, and those of us growing up in Yorkshire will know without any doubt that Whitby jet is fossilised Monkey Puzzle tree. We know this because grown-ups have told us so, probably at some stage between us losing our first tooth to the Tooth Fairy and consuming our body weight in chocolate eggs left by a seasonally bunny. So let’s unwrap this theory, shall we? Is Whitby Jet Monkey Puzzle?

The simple answer is NO, Whitby jet is NOT monkey puzzle wood.

I know that to many of you this will be very unsettling news. After all, it’s not just our parents that perpetuate this myth but also ‘the man who came to talk at our Mother’s Union meeting’, almost every Whitby Holiday Cottage agency blog (how are they qualified to comment?) and worst of all the BBC on countless programs promoting the many virtues of the Yorkshire Coastline. Often, Whitby jet is quoted as being formed from trees ‘similar’ to the Monkey Puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana. Let me make this clear, the trees that made Whitby jet are as ‘similar’ to a Monkey Puzzle tree as a rhinoceros is similar to a beach donkey.

Dylan the donkey and Angus the rhino. Photo credit Daily Mail

Yes, I grant you, they are all trees. They have treey parts like wood and leaves and twigs. This doesn’t mean that it is acceptable for grown people to call them all Monkey Puzzle Trees. Where would this stop I ask, if we allow this little lie to go unchallenged? Should we perhaps pretend that all Christmas trees are also Araucaria araucana? How would this affect Scot’s Pine or the Norweigan Spruce growers??

Monkey Puzzle Christmas tree
Monkey Puzzle Christmas tree Photo credit Sarah Horton

The photo above belongs to the amazing Monkey Map project. Those with a passion for the genuine article I can’t recommend this website enough https://monkeypuzzletrees.wordpress.com/welcome/

This so-called fact has arisen from a confusion in the taxonomy of paleobotanical specimens in Victorian times. In the early C19th, when geological sciences were in their infancy it was common for all fossilised wood to be called ‘Auaucarian’ material. The early geologists were aware that Araucaria araucana was an ancient species so the term was used as a catch-all to describe all such fossils. Although the Araucariaceae family achieved its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when it was distributed almost worldwide it doesn’t mean that all Jurassic wood fossils are made from this species. The monkey puzzle is one of three living genera in the family Araucariaceae – a division of the conifers. The three genera are Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. Within those three groupings are 41 extant (living) species which are all native to the southern hemisphere with each member looking totally unique. As it should so happen I have a member of the Agathis genera living in my kitchen. This beauty is Agathis robusta, a much closer relative of one of the species identified in Asturian jet Agathoxylon asturiensis than the Monkey Puzzle tree.

Is Whitby Jet monkey puzzle wood?
Agathis robusta. Is this the Whitby jet species?

Modern-day botanists tell us that even in freshly cut samples from the living Araucariaceae family, it is a tricky task to distinguish between the species in thin section. This difficulty is further exasperated in the fossilised jet as often little botanical information is preserved and in many cases, no species can be determined. Part of my research involves looking for alternative methods to determine species and promising progress has been made recently so watch this space! Although we know that Whitby jet is formed from multiple different species of tree the jewellery trade is reluctant to address this issue as the Monkey Puzzle myth helps to sell jewellery, it’s a case of ‘why let science get in the way of a good story!’ This myth was disproved in the 1920s, confirmed in the 1930s and proven untrue again in the 1990s using up to date paleobotanical criteria. To date, six tree species have been identified in European jet materials and none of those are Araucaria araucana. At the Ebor Jetworks, we like to inform our customers of the truth and sadly, therefore, we must dispel this monkey puzzle myth! For more about Whitby jet read here What is Whitby Jet? our advanced jet testing here.

Thankfully my fellow gemmologist have now accepted the data, and Maggie Campbell Pederson, President of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and expert on organic gemstones, reported my findings on the monkey puzzle myth in Gems and Jewellery Magazine in 2018 https://gem-a.com/gems-jewellery-magazine-archive/2018/issue-no-1

Is Whitby Jet monkey puzzle
Maggie Cambell Pederson’s article on the origins of Whitby Jet
Sarah Steele
jetsarah@hotmail.co.uk

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