How to turn base talents into gold with just a thwack

Armed with a hammer, and with much bashing of metal, Hester Lacey spent a day making jewellery

I had always thought that jewellery- making was rather a ladylike form of craftwork. I'd imagined delicately selecting a stone here or a twist of metal wire there, perhaps using tweezers, not daring to sneeze. I started to realise how wrong I was on an introductory tour of the School of Jewellery in the heart of Birmingham's jewellery quarter. It was while we were gazing at the heavy-duty lathes and hammers in the basement that I began to grasp what it was really about.

I had always thought that jewellery- making was rather a ladylike form of craftwork. I'd imagined delicately selecting a stone here or a twist of metal wire there, perhaps using tweezers, not daring to sneeze. I started to realise how wrong I was on an introductory tour of the School of Jewellery in the heart of Birmingham's jewellery quarter. It was while we were gazing at the heavy-duty lathes and hammers in the basement that I began to grasp what it was really about.

A one-day course at the School of Jewellery doesn't, in fact, involve too much muscle. The most strenuous aspects of metalworking are reserved for those who know what they're doing: the students who are devoting several years to learning how to turn out the exquisite pieces that are proudly on display in the school's entrance hall. But the course is led by one of the school's senior tutors, Eimear Conyard, and participants go home with a unique piece that they have designed and made themselves.

Eimear, a feisty, charismatic Irishwoman, kicked off with a swift canter around some of the techniques we would be using. We first learned how to anneal metal to make it softer. This involves heating it with a blow torch, then plunging it into water, followed by a bath in acid pickle to clean it up. Eimear showed us how to use a roller mill to emboss patterns on to the silver we were going to use to make our finished pieces. Even the most delicate materials, such as feathers or dried leaves, sandwiched between pieces of metal, will leave their shape on copper or silver if squished hard enough through the mill. A swift brushing with pongy liver of sulphur makes the subtle pattern stand out.

We used fine saws to cut patterns in the metal. "You'll break loads of blades," Eimear told us cheerfully. "I've brought four packs along." The first blade to twang in two was mine. To make curved shapes, we laid the annealed metal into a mould and bashed it smartly with a hammer. Making holes is done with a pendant drill, just like the one the dentist uses; its whine set all our teeth on edge.

Once we'd mastered the basics of firing, thwacking, crushing and hacking, Eimear helped us finalise our designs over lunch. Four of us were on the course, and we all chose to make necklaces. I decided on a simple design: a leaf embossed on an oblong of silver, slung on a silver cable. The cable is supplied ready-made; just as well, as it looked a more complicated process than we could handle after a mere hour or two.

Back in the classroom we got to work. And by the end of the afternoon, we were all feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Natalie, 24, had made a heart shape out of wire and had embossed it five times on to her necklace. "I'm really, really pleased with it. I'm going to wear it out tonight," she said. "I never realised what you could do with a flat piece of metal."

Anne-Marie, 32, had produced a rather Celtic-looking creation. "I got hold of a piece of wire and hit it with a hammer and kept running it through the roller," she said. "I can imagine you'd have big biceps if you did this as a profession."

"This morning when we started, I thought I might end up with something quite makeshift," confessed Fran, 28. "But I wouldn't be at all ashamed to wear my necklace." Which she then proved by putting it on.

A Saturday course at the School of Jewellery leaves you with Sunday free to explore the city. And what has happened to Birmingham since I was a student there? You turn your back for 15 years and a city receives a complete facelift. Back in the Eighties, the idea of a weekend in Brum would have been greeted with surprise even by someone with a soft spot for the place. But much of the centre is now barely recognisable to those of us who only knew it in its cheap and cheerful days. The whacking new Selfridges on the Bullring site is only part of it. Around its imposing, glittery bulk, other new stores, cafés and restaurants have mushroomed. I stayed at the Malmaison Hotel; its front door is just by the entrance to Harvey Nichols, in the trendy Mailbox development with its chi-chi boutiques and alfresco cafés and restaurants. Strolling by the canals, admiring the sparkly clean new buildings, green spaces and fountains, gives you a feeling distinctly reminiscent of London's bustlingly successful Docklands area.

With so much potential for shopping, it's just as well that the jewellery-makers have already snagged at least one real bargain. A certain hidden cost accompanies making one's own bijoux. You have to fork out for the materials. But you only pay for exactly the weight of silver that you use, and buying precious metals by weight is incredibly cost-effective. Silver costs only 15 pence per gram. The main cost of my necklace was the ready-made cable it was threaded on to. My own masterpiece cost a couple of quid, and I've seen similar pieces in shops in the £50 bracket. If I'm totally honest, I have to admit that it was Eimear's skills that meant we ham-fisted bunch all walked out with something we'd be proud to wear. But a number of people have already asked me where I bought my necklace.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to book a course

The next jewellery-making courses at the School of Jewellery will be held on 18 September and 20 November. Booking centre 0121-202 5050, or email callcentre@marketingbirmingham.com. Prices per person per night, based on two sharing, are from £100 to £115, depending on your choice of hotel.

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