Saturday, 7 March 2015

The fascinating world of Smith & Pepper

Traditional goldsmiths' circular bench - leather pouches catch valuable scraps
More tourism today. We spent the afternoon wandering around the famous Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham. Jewellery has been made in the workshops here for 250 years and the area is now the largest centre of jewellery related businesses in Europe and makes forty percent of the jewellery sold in the UK.
The streets of the Quarter have more than a trace of their past – handsome old workshop buildings and houses mingle with modern ones, there's a sizeable, and spooky, graveyard, the factory of Thomas Fattorini that has been manufacturing bespoke badges and regalia, and medals for nearly 200 years and the last Georgian square left in Birmingham with the handsome St Paul's church at its centre.
Over the years the Quarter has seen booms and declines, as wars, depressions and competition from abroad hit trade. At its Victorian peak 40,000 people were employed; now it's nearer 7000 and what was a largely wholesale and manufacturing trade is now full of retail shops, though it's still an area very much comprised of small craft businesses and family firms.
Timewarp of a workshop at Smith & Pepper's
One of these was Smith & Pepper, manufacturers and wholesalers of gold and silver jewellery. Mr Smith and his uncle, Mr Pepper were both goldsmiths and started the business in 1899. In 1981, still a family firm in the hands of three of Mr Smith's children, it closed down, a buyer couldn't be found so the doors were locked and the factory left to become a time capsule of traditional jewellery making that forms the fascinating Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.

The ancient office and, above, its hi-tech wiring
For the &P works is not so much a time capsule of the 1980s as the 1900s. Scarcely a thing was changed over the years that Tom the goldsmith, brother Eric the salesman and Dora the office manager ran the business. Old ledgers, worn workbenches, sagging wooden shelves heavy with stamps and dies, antiquated electrics and even the workers' tea cups are all still there as if the staff had just disappeared for an hour or due and would be through the door any moment.
The place is brought to life by its brilliant, knowledgeable tour guide who talked us through the workshops and demonstrated pieces of the equipment. From her we learned how carefully waste gold was recovered: materials were weighed out to each worker for his job every day and at the end of the day weighed back in in finished or waste form. Only a two percent margin of loss was permitted.
No just jewellery in the Quarter - this huge factory made pen-nibs
Each evening Mr Tom would sweep the factory floors to recover the dust which was collected and burned in the furnace downstairs to separate out the precious metals that were in it. Workers even had to wash their hands in a special sink from which the waste water ran down into a tank holding straw to collect all the particles of dust before the water went on to the sewers. The straw, once again, was burned in the furnace to recover metals.
But by the 1970s the owners were in their 80s (none had married so there were no children to inherit) and the country was in recession so no-one wanted to buy an antiquated business. So the three of them paid off the remaining staff, shut the doors and went home to retire.
Leaving us to enjoy the best four quid's worth of museum experience in a long time.
The Assay Office where precious metal items are checked and hallmarked
Handsome St Paul's Square; Birmingham's last surviving Georgian square

Spooky catacombs in the Quarter's graveyard 


  1. Show us a photo of the bling that you bought Vicky....I'm sure you couldn't get away with a trip to the jewelry quarter without buying something for Vicky (if you did, please let me know your secret).

    1. He did offer but I'd rather put diamond money towards the cost of an Aga for the house! ( now let's see what harryman says).