Friday, May 4, 2012

Jet Labret

Jet Labrets; a dirty job
I'm always happy when I get to work with a new artifact type or raw material.  The Cape Krustenstern collection I'm working on right now includes a broken jet labret.  Jet or Lignite, is a type of coal - a sedimentary rock composed of altered vegetable matter.  Its black or brownish in colour and has a hardness similar to soapstone or very dense hardwood.  A labret is a kind of body ornament worn through the lip.  While researching this particular reproduction I came across an interesting article on Alaskan labrets by "tattoo anthropologist" Lars Krutak.

Block of jet (Lignite)
I wasn't quite sure how to go about finding jet initially, but since it is relatively easy to carve, comes as a low-grade by-catch in coal mining, and the internet is enormous, I found lots of small samples on gemstone and New Age sites where they are sold as worry stones and beads with all kinds of alleged magical powers.  In the end, I went with a nice big block of the stuff that I found on eBay that was somewhat expensive for a block of coal, but which was guaranteed to give me more than enough jet to work with.  This block was about the size of a paperback novel and was quite light for its size - only 280g.

Photo pattern of artifact on jet block
The artifact that I'm reproducing is incomplete, but its not too hard to work out the missing piece, since the curve of the labret would have fit around a person's teeth.  I used my own mouth to reconstruct the missing portion.  My plan is to make several complete labrets and then break them.  Hopefully the first couple that I break will match the artifact and I can keep the remaining labrets in one piece.

Roughed out labrets
Working with jet is unlike any other material that I've used before.  Its similar to ivory, but a little softer - more like a very hard wood.  I cut the initial block with the scroll saw and have done most of the shaping with abrading stones on the Dremel tool.  Carving or cutting the stone produces a horrendous amount of black dust which sticks to everything.  The dust smells like burning coal or oil.  Water doesn't seem to affect it.  Cutting the jet with a metal saw or rotary tool will create streams of smoke, but when you dunk the stone in water to cool it comes out bone dry.  I really don't understand that. Its like the dust repels water.  It was impossible to wash the dust off without using soap.

If I was an Alaskan Wrestler, my name would be Jet Labret
This style of labret wraps around the front of the lower jaw and the thin tab at the top would protrude through a slit cut in your lip.  If you feel your gums below your lower incisors with your fingertips, you'll notice that there is a bit of a bulge where the roots are and then an indentation below that where your gums meet your lip.  These labrets would rest below that bulge, with the tab poking through a hole in your lip.  I'm sure there would be a fair amount of discomfort when they are first fit and wedged into place, but once they are set, they are designed to fit the contours of your mouth and the jet is so light weight that after a time you'd barely notice that they were there.

ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch
My labrets aren't finished - the edges are too sharp, they are a little too thick for my gumline and I have no intention of cutting my lip to accomodate the ridge, so they hurt like hell when I tried to fit them in my mouth.  Plus they tasted like the Industrial Revolution and, from what I've read, women usually wore a single centre lip plug like this anyhow, so I'll never know how it really feels to wear one.  After torturing myself trying to fit these sharp little half-done labrets in my mouth for these pictures, Lori told me that her whole head was still numb from a trip to the dentist earlier in the day.  She never even volunteered.

Photo Credits:
1, 4-6: Lori White
2,3: Tim Rast


  1. The labret didn't hurt along my gumline/mandible as bad as it did for Tim. My smaller jaw was a better fit for the curvature of this labret. It seems men wore a more narrow and round plug style through [just lateral to] either side of the chin.

  2. Actually the labrets in Alaska are made from Canel coal NOT Jet. The minerals in coal are called macerals or something (I researched this years ago for an experiment in graduate school). And canel coal is VERY distinctive. It conchoidally fractures for one thing. Canel coal is also called bog coal and is practically oil. It carves almost like plastic. Jet is not coal at all from what I read, but looks very similar.

    Anyway, all the Canel coal that I have analyzed from Alaska come from the "Kenei Formation' on the Alaska Peninsula. There is an outcrop in Katmai National Park by Kinak Bay (just inside Takli Island) where it all seems to come from. Even Dall who analyzed the moisture content of various coals in the 1890's found that this locality had very distinctive coal with a low moisture content.

    In the seam with the canel coal you can also see old tree trunks etc and I also think this is where the local amber comes from. Anyway, if you really want some, or if you have some good National Park service connections - I bet we could get you some.

    Also that style of labret is also very common on Kodiak around AD 500. It is weird how at that time the labrets on Kodiak and on the Bering sea are similar. I wrote a paper on Labrets once with Amy Steffian - check it out. It was in the Alaska Journal of Anthropology volume 1, and is titled 'Markers of Identity' . Patrick

  3. As I remember it when I worked canel coal - you actually do not create dust like you do with normal coal. It really does work like plastic. I recognize it in archaeological sites by tapping it against my teeth. It is not like a rock and has a distinctive 'feel' against the teeth.

    I had one good piece and I gave it to a guy who was into body piercing because he promised he'd make a labret or ear spool to wear. He never did - so maybe i can see if he still has the piece for you.


  4. Tim the above was my seconf comment - did it cover up my first comment? I wrote a really long one talking about how canel coal is a distinctive type of coal and not jet etc. But i don't want to write it all out again. But do check out an article I wrote on labrets titled 'Markers of Identity' and in the alaska Journal of Anthropology Volume 1.


  5. Hi Patrick, two of your comments were waylaid by the spam filter but they should be posted now!

  6. That's cool Patrick - I'll definitely pass the info on. I'm thinking that Jet is a lay term that gets applied to a variety of coal related minerals the same way ochre gets applied to a variety of iron rich minerals? Now that you've mentioned cannel coal, I see it occasionally called Jet in older litereature although most of the stone sold today as Jet is lignite. Hopefully I can get a close match to the artifact with the lignite. The original isn't a highly polished piece, and the tool marks I'm getting on the lignite seem comparable to the artifact, even though it may have been made from cannel coal.

    Is this style of labret complete or would it have been the core of a composite plug?

  7. I believe you are right about 'jet' being a lay term that gets miss-used for a lot of look-a-like materials. Also I will add that coal varies in degree of metamorphism and in composition (types of macerals). And also I believe what you see is what you get - they would not have been the core of a composite type plug.

    Finally, after waking up to your blog post everything turned up labrets for the rest of the day. I got to work and someone wanted a copy of that paper i mentioned on labrets. And then i gave a tour of our collections and we ended up with the labret drawer open. I got to see all our 'cannel' coal labrets - and the wood ones too. Patrick


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