Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sue Mason-Burns explores this area of excellence, which is still a thriving part of the city and home to highly skilled jewellers and businesses.

Birmingham - a city of a thousand trades that underpinned the British Industrial Revolution, an ever-changing city that is proudly leading Britain's 21st-century renaissance in manufacturing and technology. What is perhaps less well known about Birmingham is its pre-eminence within the jewellery industry. Artists, foreign dignitaries and celebrities are drawn from far and wide to utilise the skilled artisans at work in Birmingham's best-kept secret - the Jewellery Quarter.  

The Jewellery Quarter is a stone's throw from the City centre in one of Birmingham's oldest districts, Hockley. Recognised as a centre of excellence in the jewellery industry, and also as a creative village, the Jewellery Quarter is home to a diverse range of restaurants and bars, art galleries, free museums and 200 listed historic buildings. And let's not forget over 100 jewellery shops to enjoy!

Despite the boom and bust economy of the modern era, over 300 jewellery businesses are still based in the Jewellery Quarter, producing an estimated 40% of all jewellery in the UK. Some of these businesses are unique, one-of-a-kind companies such as Toye, Kenning and Spencer, who make military buttons. A large proportion of the companies in the Quarter operate under the radar and present as plain, somewhat austere, brick façades, behind which is hidden a huge manufacturing base. But some of the companies based in the Jewellery Quarter are very familiar names to jewellery makers, such as Cookson Precious Metals, Sutton Tools and Cousins UK.

Taking in the sights

I decided to visit the Jewellery Quarter to sample the atmosphere and visit some of its attractions. A series of cleverly designed pavement trails, self-guided walking tours, take you around the various attractions and historic facts the Jewellery Quarter has to offer. Such as the J Hudson Ltd factory (Acme Whistles), who made whistles for the Titanic and still make whistles today and the historic Victoria Works, where the technique of mass production of pen nibs was perfected.

The Jewellery Quarter also houses at its very heart, a base for training the next generation of jewellery artisans - the Birmingham School of Jewellery. I met with the Head of the School, Professor Jack Cunningham. He gave me a tour of the extensive facilities the School boasts and told me a little bit about how they fit into the history of the Jewellery Quarter. Originally opened in 1890 as a Municipal School, boys were trained from the age of 13 in jewellery making techniques and they would then go on to work for companies within the Jewellery Quarter. The School is now part of Birmingham City University and offers an extensive range of courses across the whole spectrum of jewellery making, and at all levels. It is the largest jewellery school in Europe and many of its graduates go on to work within the Quarter as designers, either within their own workshops or as part of larger companies.

Museum and factory visit

I then visited the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. The museum is split into two areas, the more modern section with exhibits depicting the history of the Jewellery Quarter and also housing modern exhibitions, and a guided tour of a working jewellery factory from the early 1900s.

The history of working with precious metals in Birmingham goes back as far as the 14th century, but the fashion for fancy buttons and shoe buckles really took off in the 1600s. The trade saw its greatest expansion in the 18th century, and the real establishment of the Jewellery Quarter, with different trades, all reliant on each other, building workshops in the gardens of the terraced houses of the area. The renowned industrialist of the time, Matthew Boulton, campaigned vigorously for a Birmingham Assay Office, a campaign that was successful in 1773. This success was celebrated in the time-honoured way, in a local pub. It was a joint celebration with the other city to be granted an Assay Office at the same time, Sheffield. During the celebrations a coin was flipped between the two cities to decide on Assay marks, which is how Sheffield came away with the Crown, and Birmingham with its famous Anchor. The pub hosting these celebrations was, of course, the Crown and Anchor.

The enjoyable guided tour of the factory takes you through the premises of manufacturing jeweller, Smith and Pepper. Founded in 1899, the factory was forced to close in the 1980s, when the recession took its toll on the industry. Rather than just closing its doors, the owners of Smith and Pepper decided to sell it as a Museum. Because of this, the factory is a unique time capsule, left exactly as it was the day it closed, right down to papers on desks in the office and working machinery in the factory itself. It is easy to forget that the factory closed as recently as 1981 as the surroundings in the office are more redolent of the 1940s, and on the ground floor in the factory you wouldn't have to stretch far to imagine jewellers from Victorian times toiling away at the benches. The tour includes a demonstration of the methods used in the factory for making gold jewellery, including the use of an Archimedes drill, a tool dating from the 1600s, which is still used in the Jewellery Quarter today.

The tour of the working factory is a fascinating insight into a bygone era which is made all the more real by the authenticity of the surroundings. It doesn't feel like an exhibit in a museum; it feels alive and vital, as if the workers had just stepped out for a tea break.

As a jewellery maker, I feel that my visit to the Jewellery Quarter has enriched my appreciation of the history of my trade. All this time I have been ignorant to the fact that I had a hidden gem right on my doorstep; Birmingham's rough diamond that I am very glad to have unearthed.


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