`I liked the snake jewellery'

Catherine Stebbings visits Birmingham's Jewellery quarter
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The Independent Travel
Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter has been a hive of activity for over 200 years and is still a living community of crafts people, manufacturers and retailers. St Paul's church and square and the neighbouring streets were built in the late 1770's. Silversmiths and goldsmiths moved there, as well as the "toy makers" who made fancy buckles, trinkets and small boxes. They pooled their skills to produce the best designs, workmanship and materials.

By 1913 almost 70,000 people worked in the jewellery trade. It is still an area of grand houses and artisan's terraces. An open cemetery is crammed with deceased jewellers and an intriguing clock stands at the end of Vyse St, commemorating local MP, Joseph Chamberlain.

In the 1970's manufacturers opened their doors to the public, encouraging retailers to open shops here. This is the place to sell your bullion, but there is nothing fake here - it is Birmingham's business and a big one. Ring makers, chain makers, bracelet makers join forces to produce all you could dream of. You will also find the School for Jewellers and Silversmiths (run by the University of Central England in Birmingham), over 100 jewellery shops, and many more workshops. Even the Assay office is just around the corner on Newhall St.

The Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre occupies the restored premises of Smith and Pepper. The company was first registered in 1899 and ceased trading in 1981 when there were no heirs to continue the business. It is a fascinating insight into a working factory, the techniques used and the grim conditions in which they worked to produce such sparkling results.

Everything from ledgers to shoes covered in gold dust has been preserved. Over 7000 steel dies silently line the walls of the single storey factory out in the garden, never to be used again. This may seem dead history but just up the road hundreds of jewellers work at their windows using much of the same technology.

The visitors

Rosie Hayes, teacher, took her two daughters Sarah, 14 and Jessica, 10.

Rosie: My husband was raised in Birmingham so I wanted to introduce the children to the area as somewhere their grandparents had visited and enjoyed for years. Their grandfather lunched in the St Paul's Club in the Jewellery Quarter for much of his life. We all enjoyed looking round the jewellery shops seeking out rows of pearls, gold chains of every conceivable design and comparing the price tags. This definitely gave us a feel for the area.

The museum was nicely presented. A good, short video introduced the jeweller's raw materials of gold, silver, platinum, diamonds and coloured gemstones, describing how they are mined and prepared for use. A display of jewellery and a sign indicating where it had been worn from ears to navels brought it down to a personal level and we became part of centuries of jewellery wearing people.

The guided tour concentrated on the family business, the employees and the manufacturing process. I liked the way the factory retained its atmosphere, still smelling of oil; dark and dingy, lit solely by rows of old angle- poise lamps and a grimy window. It was pokey, crammed with thousands of dies and huge industrial machinery. There was a chance for the children to get a feel for the manufacturing process which is important in an age where everything from food to jewellery is instantly available in huge variety and quantity from a local shop. It would have been easier to take in if we could have tried our hand at using the simple drill to make a hole through the metal, pulling the copper wire through the wire lengthener or even matching a cast to a die.

Sarah: I found the Jewellery Quarter really interesting with all those tiny shops selling old and new jewellery, a variety of people buying and selling, and a lot of money changing hands. I saw one lady hand over a huge wad of notes - I have never seen so many in my life.

At the Discovery Centre it was nice to see the only place where they did all the manufacturing under one roof, from sheet metal to finished process. I don't think I would wear the bamboo bracelets Smith and Pepper made but I liked their snake jewellery.

I can't imagine working in the factory for 60 years as some of the jewellers did. They only worked on a single part of the designs, the same part every day. The round benches were very cramped and the windows kept closed to stop the small burners going out or the gold dust flying outside.

The jeweller who was demonstrating there was very interesting. I would love to master the circular breathing he showed us. He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth at the same time while working with his blow- pipe.

We did have a big group on our tour but then it gave me an idea of just how cramped working conditions were. A nice lady guide had actually worked there and told us what it was like, how the place worked and how the staff were managed. She showed us her name in the wages book and was apparently paid very well.

Jessica: I preferred the upstairs part of the museum most; the videos and displays were good. I liked the offices with the old telephones, notes, bills, pieces of paper, packing boxes and a calculator that looked very strange. I liked hearing about the people who worked here and what they did. I would have been happier working here then in the grimy factory downstairs.

You needed a tour to see what it was like, how it felt and how they made all the different jewellery, but it was over an hour which was a bit long.

Apparently it doesn't normally last that long. The man working at the bench was good, but I like places with more activities for children. I would have liked to cut some metal, make a ring or just touch something. When we had our photo taken we did get to sit at a bench and feel what it was like.

I loved the shops in the Jewellery Quarter. I bought a pair of solid gold earrings for only pounds 5 which was great. Later we spotted a similar die in the Discovery Centre.

The Deal

Birmingham Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre, 77-79 Vyse Street,

Hockley, Birmingham (0121-554 3598. Entrance through the shop. The Jewellery Quarter is signed from the city centre for pedestrians and traffic, and served by trains and buses 16, 16A, 70, 74, 78, 79, 91,46 and 101.

Access: Meter parking and multi-storey Pay and Display (2 hours) on Vyse St. Free parking (2 hours) on most adjoining streets.

Disabled-access.

Opening Times: All year Monday-Friday 10am-4pm.

Saturday 11am-5pm, Closed Sunday. Admission: Adults, pounds 2; Children and OAP's, pounds 1.50; Family tickets, pounds 5.

Food: The Discovery Centre has an excellent cafe, better than most local sandwich bars for snacks, cappuccino and cake etc. Filled baguettes, pounds 1.50. Open 10am-4pm, weekdays; 11am-5pm, Sats. The area has a number of traditional greasy spoon cafes like the Hylton Cafe, 2 Hylton St. Sausage, egg, chips and peas for pounds 2.15; open 6.30am-2.30pm; 7.30am-2.30pm, Sats. The best pub is The Rope Walk, St George's Square for good hot meals, light snacks and Banks's beer. There is also a street vendor selling filled jacket potatoes, pounds l.50, on Vyse St.

Shopping: Around 100 jewellery shops offer classic engagement rings, bracelets, chains, signet rings, watches etc. Smaller studios take one- off commissions. Sculptors, stained-glass designers, graphic artists and furniture makers also have studios. The Discovery Centre Shop has good contemporary jewellery and local crafts - including work by Kathryn Willis, Ruth Martin, Jane Adams and Pamela Rawnsley.

Events: Temporary exhibitions of local craftspeople in the Discovery Centre Cafe. Craft Sale, Discovery Centre Cafe, 7 and 8 December - offering unique ideas for Christmas shoppers.

Toilets: Excellent facilities in the Discovery Centre including baby changing and feeding room. Public toilets on Vyse St for shoppers.

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