Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Jewellery - from raw gold to finished item
Earlier this week as research for my current book I visited the Smith & Pepper factory which is part of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. Our tour guide was marvellous. A jeweller himself he was knowledgeable, informative, had a wonderful sense of humour, and brought the story of the factory to vivid life. It opened in 1899, a small family business founded by Charles Smith and his uncle, Edwin Pepper. Both had previously worked at Smith & Ewen, owned by Charles Smith’s father. (When I heard that my writing antenna immediately started twitching. Why had nephew and uncle left to set up a separate company? Had there been a family quarrel? If so, what about? Potential for a family saga?)
In the 1920s Charles’s son Eric took over sales and promotion of the company’s jewellery. His sister Olive ran the office, and their brother Tom joined them in the early 1930s to run the workshop. The three siblings never married. When Tom and Eric decided to retire no one in the family wanted to take on the business, perhaps because it had not moved with the times. Miss Olive still used her ancient black sit-up-and-beg typewriter and a massive green comptometer – forerunner of the adding machine. Nor, due to the economic climate at the time, could a buyer be found. So in 1981 the owners sold the building and contents to Birmingham City Council, locked the door and walked away. Miss Olive was 74 at the time and not ready for retirement even if her two brothers were. So she went across the road and worked for another jeweller until she was 85.
In 1990, after doing nothing for nine years, Birmingham City Council sprang into action, employed an architect, photographer and an archivist and began work on turning the building into a museum. Every one of the 70,000 items was photographed and catalogued, including a milk bill from 1899. After the necessary Health & Safety work had been completed each item was returned to the exact spot it had been found, with the exception of two cups and their nine-year-old residue of half-drunk tea. The museum opened in February 1992.
Those scales in the top picture? They reach to my shoulder. The wooden implement in the photo on the right that looks as if it might have featured in the Spanish Inquisition is used to stretch gold bars into fine wire of different profiles.
Among many fascinating items I saw was an alloy recipe book. Pure gold is 24 carat, but is too soft to work with, nor can it be polished to a shine. This is the reason other metals are added. To make 9 carat gold you need 375 grams of gold, 100 grams of silver, 450 grams of copper and 75 grams of zinc. After these are heated together in a crucible, the mixture is poured into a mould and the result is a one kilogram gold bar.
The company made gold and silver bangles, brooches, cufflinks and pendants. Many of the designs made in 1899 continued in popularity and were still being produced right up until 1981 when the factory closed. Their speciality was bamboo bangles and the snake jewellery which had become very popular in the early 1920s following the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
From gold bar to a finished item of jewellery is a journey of many stages. Smith & Pepper were unusual as they completed all their jewellery under one roof. To achieve this they employed up to 35 people at a time, each one training for many years to specialise in a particular process. A young apprentice of 16 would spend at least a year learning how to use a piercing saw that would cut thin flat sheets of gold, copper, brass etc. Now jewellery frequently passes from one firm to another during various stages of manufacture.
To guarantee their purity, items made from gold, silver and platinum are tested at an assay office and marked with a hallmark. The only exception is earrings which may be too small to allow for a mark.
In 1762, to cash in on the booming silver trade, Matthew Boulton opened a factory producing silver items such as buttons, buckles and spoons. But with no assay office in Birmingham, and despite the risk of damage and theft, he had no choice but to send his silver to Chester to be hallmarked. In 1773 after two years of hard campaigning he and the other silversmiths finally achieved establishment of the Birmingham assay office. This brought increased trade and greater prosperity to the town.
Walking through the factory and seeing the workshops and the tools – simple and basic but used with great expertise as demonstrated by our guide – helped me imagine what it must have been like to work there over 100 years ago. I was grateful one thing was missing – the noise. The thud of stamps and the roar of the steam turbine powering belts that operated the polishing machines must have been deafening.