The jet set
Until recently, genuine jet (the semi-precious stone) in the U.S. was fairly expensive and not too easy to find. That's changed just within the last couple of years. My usual bead supplier, Fire Mountain, now carries several sizes of jet beads at prices in the $10 range. This is about half the price of the first strand I bought (elsewhere) several years ago. They don't say where this jet is from, but China is probably a good bet.
I bought that first strand to make a copy (shown in the photo below) of the fifteenth-century jet rosary from Compostela that I saw in Ronald Lightbown's Medieval European Jewellery, one of the best sources of information on paternoster beads. You can see the original and read how I made my copy here.
Of all the replicas I've made, this is probably the one that's closest to the original piece. The hollow silver beads are a different shape, none of the jet beads are carved, and I've knotted the silk thread between each bead, but otherwise the two are nearly identical, right down to the little badly-carved mother-of-pearl scallop shell on the original and its little badly-carved replica on my copy.
The new availability of jet inspired me to make two rosaries as Twelfth Night gifts this year, for historical re-enactor friends who I think will put them to good use. While they usually play the roles of (Protestant) members of Queen Elizabeth I's sixteenth-century court, on occasion they are called on to travel back in time a few more decades and take roles as followers of (Catholic) Queen Mary Tudor (Elizabeth's older half-sister).
Clearly, for these roles a black rosary is an essential accessory. The 16th-century diarist Henry Machyn records that in March, 1551:
The fifteenth day the Lady Mary rode through London unto St. John's, her place, with fifty knights and gentlemen in velvet coats and chains of gold before her, and after her, fourscore gentlemen and ladies, everyone having a pair of beads of black. She rode through Cheapside and through Smithfield -— the fifth [year] of K[ing Edward VI].
So that was the inspiration. I was also inspired by this rosary from a collection in Germany (though I have no idea whether this one is actually black, since I haven't seen it in color):
The cross on this rosary is a Caravaca cross, named for the town of Caravaca in Spain, where it miraculously appeared (carried by two angels, as shown) in 1231. I don't know whether such crosses were popular in 16th-century England, but in the price range and size range I was looking for, it was a good candidate -- especially since Mary Tudor was half Spanish.
So here are the two rosaries I made. (Much larger views appear when you click on these images.)
The black beads are 8mm and 12mm jet. Both crosses are from my old friends Rosary Workshop -- the one on the right is probably from a 19th century source, but I decided that for this project, big and "plausible" were the main things I considered.
Here, as in several rosaries I've made, I find ordinary size 11 seed beads very useful for holding the knots between the larger beads. (At some point I want to write more about the little beads that sometimes appear between larger ones -- the Germans delightfully call them "Zwischenperlen" -- but for now, I'll just say that they do appear in historical rosaries.) In this case, due to the fact that I'm limited to whatever kinds of beads modern merchants decide to sell, I'm faced with beads with holes large enough that they will slide right over a knot I tie in the thread they are strung on. The seed beads have smaller holes, so if I put a seed bead between two larger beads, the knot won't go through the hole in the seed bead, and the seed bead won't go through the hole in the larger bead. So if the string breaks, not all the beads will go flying -- just a few.