Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham,
75-80, Vyse Street,
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10.30 am-5 pm
Once the world’s largest concentration of jewellery-making, a square mile north of Birmingham’s city centre is still Britain’s biggest, making 40 percent of all the nation’s jewellery — although the post-Brexit surge in gold prices could be a problem.
Anyone seeking to be reminded of how we used to work not so very long ago should take the 10-minute tram journey from Birmingham’s newly revamped Grand Central Station to the city’s Jewellery Quarter, where every other shop is a jeweller and the close-knit atmosphere of a neighbourhood once closed to the wider city lingers on.
Once you’ve alighted at the Jewellery Quarter Station, walk down Vyse Street to the museum at number 75-80.
Beyond the war-effort souvenirs and display cabinets showing some of the output of the quarter, the gem at the heart of this museum is a former factory preserved exactly as it was left in 1981 when the owners Eric, Olive and Tom Smith, known to their staff as Mr Eric, Miss Olive and Mr Tom, locked the door of Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturers for the last time.
The three siblings had run the factory they inherited from their father Charles from the 1930s but the combination of their advanced ages – 81, 78 and 74 respectively – and a surge even then in the gold price, which increased their costs, convinced them to shut up shop.
But their personalities and those of the former workers endure.
Fisher portrays the management as benign but strict. Staff were not allowed to use Brylcreem or have turn-ups on their trousers because both could be used for smuggling home precious gold dust.
They also had to leave their overalls on hooks where they still hang and are possibly worth their weight in gold: a tailor could exchange a jeweller’s work coat, bound to contain fragments of gold, for a new suit.
On the gnarled and pitted work benches, piles of tools lie as if just placed down at the end of a shift. There’s even a half-finished jar of Marmite, cups of tea and a bowl of sugar stored next to dangerously similar-looking potassium cyanide, used for electroplating.
An hour-long tour with an engaging guide – ours was Rupert Fisher – brings it all back to life.
We hear of the office romances, the office feuds – a panel separated two sides of one work bench between two employees who vied over pay – and rare but serious accidents, such as a worker being blinded by hot metal.
It’s amazing the casualties were not frequent. Fisher demonstrates how a skilled worker, apprenticed over seven years, could precision weld jewellery. Using a Bunsen burner and circular breathing techniques, he would blow through a pipe from one side of his mouth while smoking out of the other.
“It was incredible – and terrible,” as Fisher put it.
The terrible is a point well made as it could be easy to drift into nostalgia as we wander around the homely, atmospheric factory and wonder if our own working lives have as much meaning.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.