Birmingham Jewellery Quarter: visit to Smith and Pepper factory is a step back in time
BIRMINGHAM, England, May 2015 – A visit to the Smith and Pepper factory at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham is a step back in time and a fascinating look at the jewellery making practices of the 20th Century.
Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham
The factory at 78 and 79 Vyse Street in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter, which produced gold jewellery from 1899 until its closure in 1981, is like stepping into a time warp: everything has been left just as it was when the business shut with the retirement of three members of the Smith family.
Outdated tools and hand-written order books remain in the dark rooms of the factory, and there is no hint of the state-of-the-art computer-driven technologies that play such a big part in jewellery manufacturing today.
Without the health and safety legislation that is in force nowadays, work practices in the early part of the 20th Century were often hazardous, and the noise deafening, raising risks of work place accidents such as loss of fingers.
The factory management were careful to regularly collect and recycle gold dust residues from the jewellery crafted in the factory by well-trained goldsmiths.
Birmingham Jewellery Quarter
The jewellery included swallow designs, popular during the World Wars, and Egyptian style snake designs, after Egyptologist Howard Carter made ancient Egypt fashionable.
Hallmarking took place at the nearby Birmingham Assay Office.
The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter has a rich history of jewellery making, in the centre of Birmingham, just 15 minutes’ walk from Birmingham New Street railway station.
Families would spend their lives working for companies in the district, a patchwork of redbrick terraced houses, now with its own Jewellery Quarter railway station.
In the First World War, battalions were organised from residents and artisans of the Jewellery Quarter.
Jewellery making in Birmingham suffered in the second half of the 20th Century due to competition from countries such as India and Thailand where labour costs were cheaper.
However, jewellery manufacture is still alive in the Jewellery Quarter today, such as at Weston Beamor, on Vyse Street, which uses the latest technologies to produce jewellery for both the domestic and export markets.
The Jewellery Quarter is now a closely knit community of manufacturing units, retail shops selling diamond bridal rings and pre-owned watches, characterful eateries and old pubs, and is notable for its absence of chain stores that fill so many of Britain’s high streets today.