Birmingham’s Cultural Jewel Endangered As Developers Consider Jewelry District | Birmingham

In the dusty basement of the luxury jeweler’s workshop Deakin & Francois, grooves have been worn into the wood of workbenches used by generations of skilled hands to create parts for over 200 years.

It is England’s oldest jeweler and has been based in the heart of Birmingham’s jewelry district since 1786 and, as the world around the factory has changed, inside it feels like time has stopped. “The entrance stairs have been worn out by the entrances and exits of slightly overweight Deakins for seven generations,” said Henry Deakin, the current owner of the company.

But all around, the factory change is quick. A number of surrounding buildings are being converted into apartments and offices, while just down the road is a bustling square of shops, cafes, and brunch spots.

“For manufacturers and workshops that depend on each other, it’s getting harder and harder for people to rent space,” said Deakin, who runs one of the few manufacturers in the quarter after many moved to abroad or closed shop. “We get a lot of knocking on the door from developers who want to buy this site. It’s very tempting because these are big numbers, but we are not for sale.

“We have been here forever and we are proud of our heritage. We don’t go around the world saying we’re made in England – we say we’re made in Birmingham ”.

Birmingham’s jewelry district. Photograph: Gary Calton / The Observer

About 40% of the jewelry made in the country comes from this corner of the UK’s second-largest city, which employs around 4,000 people in 600 businesses. But the number of jewelers in the neighborhood is on the decline, and as it becomes an increasingly popular place to live, rents are rising.

“In the 12 years that I have been here, my rent has increased by 75%,” said James newman, which has a jewelry workshop and boutique in the neighborhood in premises rented from Birmingham City Hall. “For the last two rent reviews, my rent has gone up 25% each time. So, it’s potentially going to get to a point where I can’t financially justify being here. “

Newman came from a former mining town in South Yorkshire to study at the famous Birmingham Jewelry School and started his business without any financial help: “I literally sold one ring and used that money to make two more. . “

He said when he first moved to the area it was “tumbleweed” after 5pm and he’s glad it’s busier now. “There was very little life. Very few people lived here. I like the fact that he has some life now. But we are seeing huge amounts of development. Where large-scale factories and manufacturers have gone and left buildings empty, those empty buildings are now becoming residential.

“As an industry we saw what happened in Hatton Garden in London where house prices went up so much that it forced an industry to pull out.”

Newman said he was disappointed the council was selling properties to developers. “It certainly looks like they intend to sell as much as they can, which is worrying for the future,” he said. “There is still a core of artisans and manufacturers here; I’m not worried that this will change overnight, but what will happen in the next 20 years? “

Nigel Ellis in a Deakin & Francis workshop, surrounded by tools
Nigel Ellis works for the jeweler Deakin & Francis. He has 44 years of experience in the business. Photograph: Gary Calton / The Observer

The neighborhood is a sanctuary for the jewelry industry, from glitzy storefronts to laneway workshops, with many workers honing their craft for decades. Creator and jewelry designer Charlotte lowe rents a one-room workshop in the neighborhood. “I still have to pinch myself because I am so grateful to do the work that I do and to be part of a community that has been around for over 250 years,” she said. Like many, she doesn’t necessarily care about newcomers to the area, but said she hopes more can be done to preserve the “magic” of the region “before it is lost.”

The jewelry district grew out of the city’s metallurgical industry and the “toy” trade – the fashion for metal trinkets like buckles and boxes in the 18th century. Craftsmen with different skills began to come together so that manufacturers could easily bring in different services, and over time, especially with the arrival of the trial office, the jewelry district was born.

In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on defending and preserving the history of the region – there are now a number of museums in the neighborhood. “But we don’t want it to become a big deal to come to the jewelry district and see what happened here 100 years ago. We want people to come to the museum and come out of the front door and see what’s going on now, ”said Matthew Bott, director of the Jewelery Quarter Development Trust.

He said the council had made the neighborhood a conservation area that has helped preserve many listed buildings and that, with a few exceptions, most residential buildings are on the outskirts of the neighborhood rather than in the center.

The board says it is committed to “achieving inclusive growth that benefits everyone in all of our communities” and is doing everything possible to ensure that is the case in the jewelry district.

Singh Sandu is a local resident who is transforming one of the district’s old listed buildings into apartments and offices. He ran a convenience store in the neighborhood for 20 years, but had to sell when a Tesco Express moved in next door. “We had this building for years, but the city council only let us turn it into workshops that nobody wants anymore,” he said. “Then it relaxed the rules and we were able to create apartments, even if the ground floor has to be a workspace. “

Singh Sandu outside an old building in Birmingham's jewelry district
Singh Sandu is a former boutique owner in the jewelry district. He is currently renovating the buildings in the district into apartments and offices. Photograph: Gary Calton / The Observer

In addition to concerns about rising rents, there are also fears that the number of young people entering the industry will not be sufficient and that skills may be lost. “The number of skilled people in the area is now declining because it never passed on. There aren’t enough apprentices, ”Newman said.

Over the past two centuries, Birmingham’s jewelry district has had to reinvent itself on several occasions. The growing popularity of shoe laces in the 1800s led to the collapse of the silver buckle trade in the region. At one time, there were around 100 pen factories making pen nibs – until the arrival of the Biro.

Today the region faces a new challenge, but an optimistic business can be overcome. “I think we’re at a turning point and it will definitely be interesting to see what happens,” Newman said. “But I think the jewelry district is here to stay. When you are familiar with the smells, sounds, and sights, you can see that a hive of activity always takes place behind closed doors.

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