on October 7, 2000 by Chris Arnot in Guardian G2, Comments Off on Precious gem

Precious gem

As ministers from Nato gather in Birmingham, Chris Arnot explores the Jewellery Quarter’s mix of new bars and Georgian architecture.

An apartment in inner-city Birmingham was recently put on the market for £1m. A sizeable apartment, needless to say, offering 4,000 sq ft of luxury loft space at the old Lucas electrical components factory. What’s really upping the price, though, is the location. Crucially, it stands on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter which, according to one rather over-excitable local estate agent, is “set to become Birmingham’s Greenwich Village”.

When you’re trying to persuade some footballer or chief executive to part with a year’s salary, perhaps the standard hyperbole of the property business have to be stretched to the point where you might conceivably be tested for hyperbolic steroids.

Let’s just say that the majority of the 6,000 who ply their trade in the Quarter, a square mile of blue-bricked pavements and largely red-bricked buildings to the north-west of the city centre, are blissfully unaware of their new cult status. They simply get on with doing what generations of Brummies have always done here: spinning, filing, engraving and polishing precious metals, cutting and setting precious stones.

It remains to be seen whether the jobbing jewellers will be able to afford to carry on manufacturing long into the 21st century. Central Birmingham’s tranformation continues apace. Serious money is cascading into yet more leisure developments and young professionals are clamouring to live in the middle of town.

English Heritage has become acutely conscious of the potential threat and outlined a conservation-led strategy to preserve what chairman Sir Neil Cossons has called a “national treasure”. In the introduction to an extensive architectureal and photographic study of the Quarter, he says: “It contains the best and most extensive surviving group of Victorian and 20th-century buildings devoted to the manufacture of jewellery and similar goods in Europe, a place of unique character.”

Like much else in Birmingham, that character is a product of industrial evolution rather than grand design. Admittedly, there is one handsome Georgian square on the southerly edge, St Paul’s Church at its core an oasis of peace increasingly hemmed in by restaurants and bars. The Quarter is also blessed with some substantial Victorian factory buildings in Renaissance, Spanish-Romanesque or Venetian-Gothic style.

But the majority of manufacturing premises are small workshops, carrying on the traditions of the Quarter, which rose to the challenge when, in the 1840s, demand grew for better-quality jewellery. The craftsmen also found time to make the original FA Cup and the whistles for the Titanic. By the outbreak of the first world war, some 70,000 people earned their livings here.

Jobbing jewellers worked behind closed doors until 20 years ago. Then, with the industrial heart of England gripped by recession, somebody had the bright idea of cutting out the middleman and selling directly to the public. It was a way of formalising the discount system that had gone on for years for those happy few who knew someone who worked in the Quarter.

Bargains – sometimes a third or more of the shop price – are not difficult to find today. But one result of making them available through the front door rather than the back-yard hatch has been an outbreak of brash blinds, window boxes and even fairy lights. Behind the façades, though, not too much has changed. You can still spot jewellers sitting at ancient benches, called “pegs”. On each peg is a naked flame that can be adjusted at the push of a button – one of the few technological advances to penetrate this trade in the 20th century.

“We don’t change much. I’m still using a hand drill invented by the Romans,” says Mick Jones who is giving a demonstration at a peg once occupied by 11 men at Smith and Pepper in Vyse Street. You can see their brown overalls, hanging on the wall like limp skins. You can also see into the office next door where works director Tom Smith spent 55 years, carefully weighing out each man’s allotted gold at the beginning of each day and weighing it back at the end.

On Friday, May 17 1981, Tom, his brother Eric and sister Olive locked up the factory for the last time. Ten years later, it was bought by Birmingham City Council. After carrying out structural repairs, everything was restored to how it was – from the copper-plate ledgers in the general office to the tools and tea mugs abandoned at benches. It is now part of the award-winning Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which also acts as a showcase for the cutting-edge work of a new breed of designers who are beginning to make their presence felt in the area.

Where to eat

The city’s reputation for gastronomy has taken a turn for the better with the arrival of Raymond Blanc’s Le Petit Blanc (0121-633 7333) and an outpost of Bank (0121-633 4466). A three-course meal in either costs £30-£35 a head, with cheaper menus available at lunchtimes and early evenings. Both are in Brindleyplace, the thriving canalside development off Broad Street. Also here is Cafe Ikon (0121-248 3226), which offers superb tapas in arty surroundings.

The Jewellery Quarter has a more long-established gem in Gilmore’s (0121-233 3655), tucked away in a converted factory on Warstone Lane (dinner: £21.50 for three courses, lunch: £12.50 for two courses and £15.50 for three). Not far away, on Cornwall Street, is the Metro Bar and Grill (0121-200 1911), recent recipient of a Michelin Bib Gourmand (£20 to £25 for three courses). For those on a tighter budget, head east for the Balti Belt in the Sparkbrook area. Starter, main course and naan bread will cost under £7 on average. Take your own booze. Try the Royal Naim (0121-766 7849), Stratford Road, Adil’s (0121-449 0335) on Stoney Lane, or Al-Frash (0121-753 3120), Ladypool Road. Birmingham also has a growing Chinese quarter in the city centre, in and around Hurst Street.

Live music

• The Jam House (0121-200 3030), St Paul’s Square, Jewellery Quarter, is a favourite of Jools Holland, who’s played there a couple of times. Open until 2am Wed to Sat when they charge for admission, food available.

• The Fiddle and Bone (0121-200 2223), Sheepcopte Street, near Brindleyplace: Great canalside pub for all ages, owned by two members of CBSO. Live music, free every night. Jazz, Celtic rock, R and B. Restaurant downstairs. Good beer.

• Ronnie Scott’s (0121-643 4525), Broad Street: Similar music to Fiddle and Bone. Admission charge for non-members: from £8.50 to £22.50, depending upon the artist. Open until 2am every morning except Sunday.

• The Medicine Bar: cutting-edge venue in the Custard Factory featuring funk, soul, hip-hop, (0121-693 6333).

Galleries

• Ikon, Oozells St, Brindleyplace: contemporary works in stylish setting. Open 11am-6pm Tue-Sun. Closed Mon.

• Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square: the world’s biggest collection of pre-raphaelites and much more. Mon-Thur: 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm.

• Gas Hall, Margaret St: touring exhibitions in splendid setting. Open 10.30am-5pm. Admission £5.

• Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, Brook Street: Prince Charles recently opened new premises in old factory in the Jewellery Quarter. Wed and Fri: 10.30am-5.30pm, Thur 10.30am-8pm, Sat 10.30am-5pm.

Where to stay

City centre hotels, such as the Hyatt, the Crown Plaza and the Forte Posthouse, offer short-break rates from £60 to £80 per room per night, including breakfast. For more details on accommodation, contact the Birmingham Convention and Visitor Bureau: 0121-780 4321.

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