In the week I visited Hockley, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter for a trip down memory lane. As the Thatcher government began to tighten its grip, I began my first proper job, trainee Assistant Works Manager for a jewellery manufacturer by the clock tower that is the symbolic centre of the Quarter.
Though the building, Chamberlain House, remains, the firm that employed me is long gone, along with many of the old factories, their wooden floors and rickety staircases burned to release tiny particles of generations of metallic dust, trampled underfoot and ground in. In the basement were some tanks filled with hessian matting, which intercepted water drained from wash basins. Once a year this gold and silver-laden matting would be sent to the bullion dealers, who would put it in a furnace and collect the precious metals. These millions of microscopic particles of precious metal, washed from my hands and face and those of a hundred others, amounted to around £10,000! If I took a bath after work there would be a metallic sheen on the surface of the water.
From time to time a customer would turn up at the little serving hatch we had with a bracelet to which the safety chain had broken. If it was new we would repair or replace it free of charge. We would ask the customer to wait for a few minutes and muggins armed with two pairs of pliers would effect repair or replacement. Of course, the customer assumed it had been done by a skilled craftsman with years of apprenticeship and work behind them!
The old Jewellery School is now part of Birmingham City University, my alma mater when it was UCE, but, back then it belonged to the City Council. There, I learned about gemstones and the difference between sapphire and lapis lazuli. In truth I picked up more in the factory.
When there was a little time to spare, one of my tasks was matching pearls. To the uninitiated one pearl is much the same as another, but that is because you only see them in matched pairs or groups. If I remember rightly there were three basic tints: grey, pink and green. These were grouped in a hinged tray with corrugated velvet-lined base and lid. The next stage was to place the pearls in pairs, for earrings, according to the way they reflected light. The windows were typical of Victorian workshops, with small panes in a grid. Pearls would reflect these grids in vibrant colours, all the colours of the rainbow, but much more distinct. But there would be permutations of (say) red and yellow or green and violet, which meant that considerable patience was required to match 100 pairs.
The lost stone
One day a rather expensively dressed lady came to the hatch. She handed over a platinum brooch in the shape of a peacock butterfly, set with about 30 diamonds of various sizes, with the two largest about 0.75 carat. It was reckoned to be worth about £30,000. The lady wanted it changed to another pattern. I can’t remember what happened to the finished product, perhaps I was on holiday, but I do recall the drama when one of the stones was mislaid. The goldsmith given the job of making the new brooch, I will call him Herbert, was putting the stones back into the bag to go in the safe, when he noticed one was missing. Herbert searched the area around his bench and then reported the mishap to the boss. All hands were recruited to the search. Perhaps it had fallen to the floor and rolled or was kicked. We searched high and low, but to no avail. Eventually, we all went home.
The next morning a somewhat sheepish Herbert came to the office, opened up some tissue paper and laid the stone on the worktop. When he reached home the previous evening Herbert noticed something odd about his shoe. Examination revealed the missing diamond lodged in the sole of his hushpuppy. Relief! It is something of a small miracle that it had not fallen out on the way home and ended up in some shady deal in the Rose Villa.
The shop I went to the other day had a pleasant doorman, who opened the outside door as customers arrived and left. This led into a sort of airlock: the internal door was only opened when the outer door was closed and vice-versa.
Back in 1980 things were not quite the same. One of my duties was to order gold (mainly) from bullion dealers to provide sufficient for the casting shop and for stamping, usually when demand was a bit higher than usual, or when we needed something special. This was done by telephone and I would be asked if I wanted to collect or have it delivered.
The delivery van was an ordinary comma-type van, the sort used by the Royal Mail or the local baker on his rounds. There was no security grill, no helmet for the driver, and the doors were left unlocked while he brought the metal in. The things we ordered like this were usually quite small, no more than about four or five kilograms.
Choosing to collect involved a short walk, about five minutes, to the bullion dealer. Once I had to collect two kilos of gold shot for casting. This came in a brown paper bag and almost fitted the large pocket of my overcoat. Another time I collected some gold sheet worth about £30,000. This was also neatly wrapped in plain brown paper and, as it was just about the same size as an LP, I carried this as you would, tucked under my arm, as though it was the latest Springsteen or Stones album. The instruction was that if anyone wanted to rob me then I should just hand over the goods. I never heard of anyone being robbed or assaulted, even though it must have been common knowledge that people with LP-sized brown paper packages were carrying a fortune!
Back to the city
My route between work and the city was generally along Newhall Street, Graham Street and Frederick Street, but sometimes I chose Vittoria Street or St Paul’s Square. One pleasure of such a warren of streets is the sequence of vistas and the tall buildings, like the church spire and the Post Office (now BT) Tower, at times in view, at others concealed.
Looking down Graham Street the spire of St Paul’s pokes out above the rooftops and there was a brief glimpse down a narrow lane off Newhall Street, but that is largely blocked by a modern building. The loss of many of the old Georgian and Victorian workshop buildings was inevitable and hastened by the Silver Bubble of 1980. Some of the old buildings remain, but today there is much more of a jumble of architectural styles, some innovative, but most formulaic, not advancing on the art deco style building that elegantly turns the corner from Vittoria Street into Regent Street.