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Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

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The Jewellery Quarter is a vibrant area in the south of the Hockley region of Birmingham which covers just over a square kilometre and contains a population of approximately 3,000 people. The Quarter contains Europe’s largest concentration of manufacturing jewellers, between them producing more than 40% of UK jewellery output. It is also home to the world’s largest Assay Office, hallmarking more than 12 million items every year. At the its zenith, around the turn of the twentieth century, it employed over 30,000 people but this figure has fallen sharply with increasing foreign competition over the last 50 years or so. The Quarter is now the hub of a vast regeneration project aimed at turning it into a urban village and a hub for creative enterprise. The origins of the Quarter can be traced back at least as far as 1553, when one of the first goldsmiths in Birmingham established a business here. During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Birmingham thrived and grew from a small village to become the second largest city in Britain and by 1800 the Quarter itself contained at least 12 jewellery manufacturers, employing over 400 skilled craftsmen.

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(Women began to enter the Jewellery Quarter workforce in the late nineteenth century)

By 1850 it is believed that up to 50% of the gold and silverware products on sale in London had been produced in Birmingham. Furthermore the trade was remarkably egalitarian in that 9 out of every 10 master jewellers had originally been workmen, a degree of social mobility that was rare in nineteenth century Britain. In 1845 the Quarter received royal approval when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert agreed to wear jewellery to the value of over 400 guineas, gifted to them from the jewellery merchants of Birmingham with the aim of promoting their products. It must have had a profound effect as by 1880 there were nearly 700 workshops employing almost 8,000 workers in the Quarter. Many new developments came out of the booming trade in the area, including electroplating which was invented by George Elkington on Newhall street and the world’s first man-made plastic, Parkesine, named after Alexander Parkes in 1862. After a brief downturn in the late nineteenth century, the Quarter reached its peak in 1914 when it employed over 30,000 people and it actually found a wartime niche by supplying the armed forces with buttons, badges, medals and belts from 1914-1918.

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(British Tommy as he would have appeared on the Somme with buckles & buttons from the Quarter)

The Quarter was hit hard by the Great Depression in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and struggled to recover lost ground in the 1930s. The area was put into munitions production at the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and was consequently badly damaged by the bombs of the German Luftwaffe during the Birmingham Blitz. The Quarter fared little better in the aftermath of the war as the new post war world favoured the economies of scale and the area was hampered by its limited geographical extent. Some large scale redevelopment works, centrally funded and organised by the civic authorities, had mixed results and were halted before final completion of the scheme. In recent times the fortunes of the Quarter have improved, most noticeably since the 1998 Urban Village Framework Plan which had the effect of promoting the redevelopment of the area as a mixed use space including jewellery sales and manufacture, coupled with residential housing and creative industries. Since the 1970s a number of conservation measures have been put in place to ensure the character and history of the Quarter are maintained for future generations. These included the creation of a museum and the formation of a number of designated conservation areas for listed status, as well as candidacy for acceptance as a UN World Heritage Site.

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(The Great Depression hit the Quarter hard)

The current focus is upon developing the Quarter as a hub for creative enterprises of all shapes and sizes, not purely focused on the gem and jewellery trade. It aims to do this largely through private investment, encouraged by business rate relief and other local government incentives. One interesting project under development is that of the A.E. Harris factory which is being rebuilt as a dual purpose industrial plant, coupled with 211 residential units and 1,725 square metres of retail space. It may also contain an art gallery and medical centre, in a effort to build a sustainable future that is not solely dependent upon industry. In addition to possessing an agglomeration of jewellery businesses, the Quarter has also benefitted from a number of fortunate accidents of its geography. In its earliest days, its central location within the population and industrial heart of England reduced transport costs to many of the cities and market towns that surrounded it. Furthermore south Birmingham sits on sedimentary sands from the Triassic periods, which are ideal in the manufacture of moulds.

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(Where the canal network once provided transport it now entices visitors)

The city in general has also benefitted from its network of canals, which is actually larger than that of Venice! Where these were once transport arteries, now they are tourist magnets. Indeed it is tourism that is starting to give the Quarter a new lease of life. Plans to promote this aspect of economic development began in the 1980s and took route in the 1990s, as a number of initiatives aimed at advertising the location and existence of the Quarter to potential visitors began in earnest. Arrangements were also made for factories and workshops to open their doors to members of the public to allow them to see items of jewellery being created by craftsmen and women. In addition to jewellery manufacture a number of art galleries were established, including St Paul’s Gallery, the largest commercial art gallery outside London. It is clear that the future of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter lies in mixed use, industrial, residential and retail activities, combined with tourism. There are many examples of other de-industrialised parts of the UK that have successfully transformed their fortunes by adopting this flexible strategy, including London’s Docklands, Manchester’s canal side developments and Liverpool’s Albert Dock.

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