BIRMINGHAM, England – Kirsty Griffiths’ delight was evident as she held on to a pair of 22-carat gold bands, newly formed from her grandfather’s heavy wedding ring.
“One for me and my own wedding and one for my aunt,” Mrs. Griffiths, 31, said recently in a cramped jewelry store here. “My grandfather had left the original to her.”
The rings now bear the anchor-shaped Birmingham Assay Office hallmark confirming the purity of the gold, and the LL badge of their maker, Lora Leedham.
Ms. Leedham, 35, is part of a generation of independent craftsmen working with major heritage companies in the gentrifying neighborhood known as the Jewelry Quarter, a center for makers since the 18th century.
According to visitor guides, about 40 percent of all jewelery made in Britain today is made in the quarter (although no one interviewed for this article can confirm that number). But many in Britain consider the neighborhood – which spans some 270 acres in this multicultural city of more than 1.1 million in the West Midlands region – worth the trip to shop for bespoke items such as wedding and engagement rings.
The Jewelry Quarter Development Trust, a group committed to reinvigorating the quarter, estimates that more than 800 jewelry-related businesses, including more than 100 retail stores, operate in the area. They employ 4,000 people, according to Ben Massey, marketing director for the National Association of Jewelers, which is also based here.
The trust’s heritage walkway leads visitors through the mix of old and new storefronts and other historic sites. At the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter, visitors can book “time capsule” tours that show the museum’s two-story, Victorian red-brick building as it was the day in 1981 when the jewelry company Smith & Pepper opened after more than 80 years on the run. the website.
The district is also home to the School of Jewelry, founded in 1890 and now part of Birmingham City University, who said the school’s annual enrollment of 400 to 500 students makes the school the largest such school in Europe.
But the neighborhood is changing, with trendy hotels and organic cafes taking up residence and vacant brick low-rise warehouses being converted into luxury apartments, prompting many jewelers to express concerns that trade is being driven out as spaces are being rescued or repurposed and rents are inevitably rising.
For example, the trust’s website lists a developer’s project, totaling £258 million, or $358 million, to turn a parking lot into a “brand new neighborhood, including a 39-story tower.” Another developer is turning a dilapidated pub called the Gothic and adjacent buildings into apartments, a restaurant and a boutique hotel, along with what the project’s marketing describes as “commercial/creative spaces” occupied by “local and independent professions”.
A spokesperson for Birmingham City Council released a statement saying: “We welcome investment and new developments in Birmingham, and the City is committed to achieving inclusive growth that benefits everyone in all our communities. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that this is the case through our involvement in the ongoing renewal of the Jewelery Quarter and other parts of the city.”
Mrs. Leedham has, at least until now, avoided moving.
“I don’t have a big shiny, fancy workshop,” she said. “I have a dusty Victorian workshop with history and memories and broken windows and people who come love it because it’s authentic and I believe it should be. I make everything by hand; that is also extremely important.”
The jeweler said she was “taught the old-fashioned way, with a saw and a file.” Her wooden workbench is covered with tools: files, hammers, tweezers, burrs for drilling, a doming block for metal shaping and a gas flame. The sofa itself “belonged to the jeweler who was here 40 years before me and it must be 100 years old,” she said.
But the building where she has been making jewelry since 2006 has a new owner. Luckily, she said, “the company just moves us upstairs to new workshops and says they’ll keep the rent the same for the next two years. They’ve been really nice.”
Being in the quarter was also important for independent creator James Newman, 45, who started out selling pieces at art fairs and trade shows but now has several employees in his workshop and a sleek, single-storey retail showroom.
“When people come through our door, we see and feel a little bit different — kind of like the restaurant where you can see the food being made,” he said during an interview with his dog, Fudge. “You can see that we have a workshop. You can hear the workshop.”
“More people are more interested in a piece that has more meaning than just buying it ready-made,” he said. “They like to know that someone has made a piece for or with them. They want to know who that person is. I really like that you can be part of someone’s story.”
Mr Newman, who spent three years at Birmingham jewelery school, described his designs as ‘a little more rustic, a little more bohemian, a little more ‘dug out of the ground’. Some of the pieces look like they are 1000 years old, but we only made them this week.”
A display case contained pieces such as a ring with a textured, hand-forged platinum band and a pear-shaped gray diamond. Another held a silver pendant to which 18-karat yellow gold was welded. The prices of the items on display ranged from £380 for a ring with tourmaline quartz as the birthstone to £10,500 for a 2-carat salt and pepper diamond and platinum ring.
“If you’re looking for a classic design, say a Tiffany-style ring with four claws and a white diamond, the Jewelry Quarter is very good because every store has the same design and they compete on price,” he said. “But it soon becomes clear to the people who come to our door that we don’t just buy stuff; we don’t produce anything massively.”
Mr. Newman sees pros and cons of the changes in the quarter. “Twenty years ago very few people lived here, it was so industrial,” he said. “Now it has become a very nice place to live. There are more bars, more restaurants, more nightlife. Twenty years ago after 5pm you would be quite concerned about walking around some of the streets.”
Still, he finds it “frustrating” that many of the neighborhood’s old buildings aren’t being maintained, “then developers will come in and keep a facade and build 600 flats behind it.”
For independent creators who don’t have a street-level window display, such as Mr. Newman, word of mouth is especially important. Kate Smith, 43, whose first workbench was in her parents’ garage, but whose studio is now a floor above Mr. Newman specializes in nature-inspired designs for alternative wedding, engagement and eternity rings.
“We’re tucked away behind the scenes, so you wouldn’t necessarily know we’re here,” she said, “but I like it so much. It makes a customer’s visit extra special for them.”
She couldn’t imagine not working in the district, she said. “This is the busiest year I’ve had. We have a lot of my gem suppliers and metal dealers here, so it’s really handy. It’s changed, but it still feels like you’re part of the fabric of the area.”
For couples wishing to make their own wedding rings, there is the Quarter Workshop, run by Victoria Delany, 39. Held in a studio in a former coffin factory and now a museum, the one-day course costs £480 plus materials, which can range from about £65 for a thin 9K gold band to over £600 for a thick 18K gold band.
Her workshop is on a street that is busy with new construction and, she said, “There is an underlying feeling that maybe some of the professions will be driven out of the area and it becomes something else.”
And the environment has already changed in some ways, she said. “As you walk through the neighborhood, you also see a lot of storefronts selling very similar things,” she said, “with a ‘we’ll beat any price’ kind of style that doesn’t give you the full story of the neighborhood and its artisans.” who are here.”
Some of the bigger heritage brands will of course continue to exist.
Henry Deakin, 39, is CEO and the seventh-generation family member who runs Deakin & Francis. The factory, which specialized in men’s accessories such as enamelled cufflinks and gold signet rings, still operates in the building where it was founded in 1786.
“We’re a bit of an iceberg here,” he said. “There aren’t many other British manufacturers like us in the Jewelry Quarter.”
The company says 25 percent of its £3.5m annual turnover comes from the United States and works with brands such as Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Company and Ralph Lauren. It also produces for British and European names such as Asprey, Garrard and Cartier.
Yet change is in the air. “There used to be 250 people in this building,” Mr Deakin said. “We’re 26 now, so it’s immediately scaled back. But actually we’re having a great time, we’re busy.”
The company has opened a shop in the Piccadilly Arcade in the St. James’s area of London; has plans to introduce a new line of gemstone jewelry for women in September; and hopes to open what Mr. Deakin called a “behind the scenes” visitor center within 18 months.
Gentrification is “a hot topic right now,” he said. “The wisest thing for us would be to sell our building tomorrow, go somewhere and have a purpose-built, very slick factory.
“But that’s not really our concern. We’re lucky to own our building, although it’s tempting when the developers start giving crazy numbers. Our heritage and our history are here and I think we will lose that charm when we move. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
And there are plenty of reasons to stay, he said: “The test office is just around the corner; the artisans here are local. What will happen in 10 or 20 years, I could not say. This building is a little damp, a little dusty, but it’s our home.”