Birmingham cultural gem at risk as developers eye jewellery quarter

An industrial hub for 200 years, the area’s historic workshops are being turned into flats

In the dusty workshop basement of luxury jeweller Deakin & Francis, grooves have been worn into the wood of workbenches used by generations of skilled hands to create pieces for over 200 years.

It’s England’s oldest manufacturing jeweller and has been based in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter since 1786 and, while the world around the factory has changed, inside it feels as if time has stood still. “The entrance stairs are worn away from slightly overweight Deakins coming in and out for seven generations,” said Henry Deakin, the firm’s current owner.

But all around the factory change is apace. A number of surrounding buildings are in the process of being converted into apartments and offices, while just down the road is a bustling square of shops, cafes and brunch spots.

“For the manufacturers and the workshops that rely on each other, it’s getting harder and harder for people to rent spaces,” said Deakin, who runs one of only a few manufacturers left in the quarter after many moved abroad or shut up shop. “We get lots of knocks on the door from developers wanting to buy this site. It is very tempting because it’s big numbers, but we’re not for sale.

“We’ve been here for ever and we’re proud of our heritage. We don’t go around the world saying that we’re made in England – we say we’re made in Birmingham”.

The Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.
The jewellery quarter of Birmingham. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

About 40% of jewellery manufactured in the country comes from this corner of the UK’s second city, which employs around 4,000 people across 600 firms. But the number of jewellers in the quarter is on the decline and, as it becomes an increasingly popular place to live, rents are rising.

“In the 12 years since I’ve been here, my rent has gone up by 75%,” said James Newman, who owns a jewellery workshop and shop in the quarter in a premises rented from Birmingham city council. “For the last two rent reviews, my rent has gone up by 25% each time. So it will potentially get to a point where I cannot financially justify being here.”

Newman came from a former mining town in south Yorkshire to study at Birmingham’s renowned School of Jewellery and set up his business with no financial help: “I literally sold one ring and used that money to make two more.”

He said when he first moved to the area it was “tumbleweed” after 5pm and he is glad it is busier now. “There was very little life. Very few people lived here. I quite like the fact that it has got some life now. But we’re seeing huge amounts of development. Where factories and large-scale manufacturers have gone and they’ve left empty buildings, these empty buildings are now becoming residential.

“As an industry, we saw what happened in Hatton Garden in London, where property prices just went up so much, it forced out an industry.”

Newman said he was disappointed to see the council selling off properties to developers. “It certainly seems like they’re quite intent on selling off as much as they can which is concerning for the future,” he said. “There is still very much a core of craftsmen and makers here; I’m not worried that’s going to change overnight, but what happens in the next 20 years?”

Nigel Ellis in a Deakin & Francis workshop, surrounded by tools
Nigel Ellis works for the jeweller Deakin & Francis. He has 44 years of experience in the trade. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

The quarter is a shrine to the jewellery industry, from glitzy shop fronts to back-alley workshops, with many workers having honed their craft for decades. Jewellery designer and maker Charlotte Lowe rents a one-room workshop in the quarter. “I do still have to pinch myself, as I am very so grateful to do the work I do and to be part of a community that has been going for over 250 years,” she said. Like many, she doesn’t necessarily mind the new arrivals to the area, but said she hopes more can be done to preserve the “magic” of the area “before any more of it is lost”.

The jewellery quarter grew out of the metalworking industry in the city and the “toy” trade – the fashion for metal trinkets like buckles and boxes in the 18th century. Craftspeople with different skills began to cluster together so manufacturers could easily draw upon different services and, over time, particularly with the arrival of the assay office, the jewellery quarter was born.

In recent years there has been a renewed focus on championing and preserving the area’s history – there are now a number of museums in the quarter. “But we don’t want it to become a case of coming to the jewellery quarter and seeing what happened here 100 years ago. We want people to come to the museum and step outside the front door and see what’s happening now,” said Matthew Bott, a director at the Jewellery Quarter Development Trust.

He said that the council has made the quarter a conservation area which has helped preserve many of the listed buildings and that, with the odd exception, most of the residential buildings are on the periphery of the quarter, rather than in the centre.

The council says it is committed to “achieving inclusive growth that benefits everyone in all of our communities” and is doing everything possible to ensure this is the case in the jewellery quarter.

Singh Sandu is a local resident in the process of turning one of the quarter’s old listed buildings into apartments and offices. He ran a convenience store in the quarter for 20 years, but had to sell up when a Tesco Express moved in next door. “We’d had this building for years but the council would only let us turn it into workshops which no one wants any more,” he said. “Then it relaxed the rules and we could create apartments, although the ground floor has to be work space.”

Singh Sandu outside an old building in Birmingham's jewellery quarter
Singh Sandu is a former shop owner within the jewellery quarter. He is now renovating buildings in the area as apartments and offices. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

As well as worries about rising rents, there’s also concern not enough young people are coming into the industry and skills could die out. “The amount of people with skill in the area is now dropping because it’s never passed on. There’s not enough apprenticeships,” said Newman.

Over the past two centuries Birmingham’s jewellery quarter has had to reinvent itself many times. The growing popularity of shoe laces in the 1800s led to the collapse of the silver buckle trade in the area. At one point there were about 100 pen factories making pen nibs – until the Biro came along.

Now the area is facing a new challenge, but one businesses are optimistic can be overcome. “I think we’re at quite a turning point and it certainly will be interesting to see what happens,” said Newman. “But I think the jewellery quarter is here to stay. When you’re familiar with the smells, sounds and sights, you can see a hive of activity is still going on behind closed doors.”


Jessica Murray

The GuardianTramp

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