It’s a rare place where people who appreciate the finer things in life can spend hours (days even) salivating over all manner of gorgeous bejewelled products, from rings, bracelets and chokers to earrings, cufflinks and watches.
Truly, there is something for every want, need and budget in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter – a historic area of Britain’s second city where buyers and browsers alike can enjoy admiring everything from traditional gold, silver, diamond and sapphire jewellery to avant-garde products that are far more quirky and unique in nature. With stock jewellery, off-the-counter jewellery and bespoke jewellery designed and made to order, there really is no type of jewellery-related product that this unique area is not able to offer.
Nicknamed Treasure Island, the Quarter is home to more than 100 retail jewellery shops and is thought to be the only area of its kind in Europe, maybe even the world. The Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre – a museum built around the restored workshops of the Smith & Pepper family business founded by Charles Smith and Edwin Pepper – describes the area as “both a unique flashback to the early days of the city’s industrial development and a living, evolving community of craftspeople, manufacturers and retailers.”
This is a very apt description.
When work began on the Discovery Centre in 1990, around 70,000 objects were photographed, catalogued and removed for safekeeping. In the process, the Smith & Pepper premises at 77-78 Vyse Street were repaired and restored and the contents put back exactly where they had been found, whilst No. 79 (next door) was rebuilt to provide visitor facilities and display space.
The origins of the city’s jewellery trade hark back to the glories of its industrial past. Indeed, metal implements, such as scythes and other cutting tools, were being made by local smiths as early as the 15th century. In fact, the earliest goldsmith recorded by name and profession was a gentleman by the name of John Blakwyn who worked in the city in 1460.
Birmingham’s jewellery trade reached its employment zenith just before the outbreak of the First World War when somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 people relied on it for their living. Once the war began, craftsmen who did not go to fight in Europe found themselves making munitions instead of jewellery. Fortunately, normal service resumed in the Quarter after the war; however, life had changed and the jewellery trade in Birmingham would never again employ so many people.
The Quarter today
Even though Birmingham’s jewellery trade today provides work for a comparatively modest 8,000 people, it is still far and away Britain’s biggest volume producer of gold jewellery. In addition, The Quarter has now become a conservation area that is rightly proud of its many historic structures. Among them are the Grade I-listed jewellers’ church of St Paul, itself set within Birmingham’s last Georgian square; the landmark Chamberlain Clock erected in 1903; and the Birmingham Assay Office – which is still the busiest in Britain!