School for jewellers preserves dying art of diamond-cutting

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The Independent Online
Hatton Garden was a hive of activity yesterday morning, the glow of gold and gems in the windows of the shops that line the centre of the country's jewellery industry illuminating the November gloom.</p>With Christmas approaching, business was brisker than usual - diamond merchants mingling with wholesale traders, customers, elderly craftsmen and shop assistants getting a salt-beef sandwich. The few cramped streets of Hatton Garden are home to at least 1,000 businesses including gold-dealers and silversmiths, employing more than 2,500 people.</p>But behind all the hustle and bustle, Hatton Garden is looking at an uncertain future. The demand for jewellery remains strong, but the British trade is facing a shortage of people trained in its vital skills, gem-cutting and diamond-polishing. Nowadays the scions of the predominantly Jewish immigrants who brought the trade to London prefer the glamour of the City.</p>Increasing competition from cheap foreign imports and high rents, which have been squeezing out the small workshops that formed the backbone of the trade, have added to the pressure. A Department of Trade report three years ago warned that British jewellery manufacturing was in danger of dying out within a decade if the trade did not invest in training. The share of the domestic market taken by British-manufactured jewellery slumped from 68 per cent in 1980 to 56 per cent in 1999.</p>But the industry is fighting back. The London Development Agency announced yesterday that it was giving £400,000 to ensure the future of a small jewellery school set up specifically to preserve what might otherwise become dying arts.</p>The Holts Jewellery School was established with the help of European Social Fund money in 2000 and offers free short courses in gemstone-cutting and polishing, jewellery making and diamond mounting, and even setting up a business.</p>It offers places to anyone with a London postcode who can show such training can help their business. There is a waiting list, but anyone who can demonstrate particular need can jump the queue. It is set up in the basement of the family business, R Holt and Co, started by Robert Holt, a pre-war Jewish refugee from Vienna, more than 50 years ago.</p>Mr Holt, 80, still works every day but leaves much of the running of the business to his son, Jason, whose brainchild the school is. Mr Holt senior said: "Interest in skills is diminishing. Young people don't want to know about training and apprenticeships if they can get easy money elsewhere. But we need to perpetuate the skills to keep the trade going in this country. Our industry creates high quality, individually designed work, not the kind of mass-produced stuff from Taiwan or Hong Kong.''</p>Jason Holt said: "A lot of companies just won't invest in training because their profit margins are so tight. We are offering these courses aimed at people who are very busy to learn their skills quickly and easily. It is short-sighted not to invest in training because we have a fantastic amount of talent and ideas in the jewellery business in this country."</p>Julia Cowell, 21, from Essex, who is studying for a diploma in silversmithing and jewellery at London Metropolitan University, is typical of the new breed of entrants to the trade who can benefit from the school. She attended the school's gemstone cutting course and had returned yesterday to use its facilities for work on a university project. "I'm hopeful of going on to a full degree course," she said, "and this school has been really good in helping me achieve that." </p>