Birmingham Jewellery 1898 by John Foster Fraser

An excerpt from Birmingham and its Jewellery written in 1898 by John Foster Fraser and Illustrated from Special Photographs by Harold Baker 

‘The Birmingham jewellery trade is different from any other trade. The works that are of any size are few. Operations are generally carried on in mean streets in rickety and grimy buildings no larger than a cottage with a number of ramshackle buildings at the back. There is generally a dirty board over the door, and if you have good sight you may decipher the name of the jeweller. In other instances there is not even the board to assist you. The place is practically unknown except to the merchants.’

‘One of the most interesting visits I made during my stay in Birmingham was to the works of Messrs Payton. I went to their works to see the making of high-class jewellery, where all was gold and silver, where the articles were hand and not machine made, and where the jewels were real.'

old photo jewellers birmingham


'In the working of gold and silver not much waste is allowed. The men work round shamrock-shaped tables, sitting, as it were, with a leaf partly on each side of them. They wear big leather aprons, which are fastened beneath the table, so that in filing gold the grains are arrested. When a piece of gold is handed out to a man in the morning it is weighed, and weighed again when returned in the evening. The filings are also weighed, so that there is little opportunity for thieving, even were a man disposed. Cases have been known of a man pilfering filings, and making up the deficiency by working in some brass filings. But the deception is discovered when the filings are put in the melting-pot. There is a case on record of a worker in gold who was noticed to be constantly rubbing his fingers through his greasy hair. He was watched, and it was found that on reaching home he washed his head every night, and then allowing the water to run through a flannel, got the gold dust. But theft is very rare. The workmen are of a superior class, and as little temptation as possible is placed in their way.'

old photograph jewellers birmingham


'Still, although every care is taken to collect the dust in their aprons, and although every man has to wash his hands in a special tank so that the dust may be obtained, a little disappears somewhere. The sweepings of a place like Messrs Payton are very valuable. Indeed one of the partners told me that they sell the sweepings to a firm of refiners for £1500 a year. Enormous prices are given for old flooring from a gold workshop, and a jeweller’s old waistcoat will sell for enough to buy a new suit of clothes. Every precaution is taken to prevent loss of gold dust. This was not always so. There are fortunes in many old rubbish heaps about Birmingham, where the sweepings of work-shops were thrown before refiners found they were valuable.’

jewellery quarter victorian

A Steady Hand

'There are three large workrooms at Payton’s, where the workers in silver, 9ct gold, and 15 and 18ct gold are respectively engaged. Everything is clean and in its place. The men and the apprentices have their work before them and their tools around them, and they work silently and with great dexterity fashioning dainty ornaments. As they are all hand-wrought, there are never two alike. Much is left to the taste and the individuality of the workman. The engraving I found particularly interesting. Many of the articles are too dainty to be held in a vice to be worked, so they are fastened in a ball of shellac which hold them tightly. The ball can be moved about any way, so that when the fine chisels are used in cutting out designs they have free play. The article is loosened from its hard bed by softening the shellac before the fire.'

Designs were being cut by means of fret-saws. With a firm touch and a quick-moving hand, other men were engraving monograms and crests. Dainty brooches, earrings, scarfpins and bracelets were all being made. In the rough the ordinary eye could not well distinguish between the silver and gold. A nice rich bloom is imparted to the articles by dipping them in solution, just the same as done with imitation ware.

jewellery quarter birmingham photo

Melting and alloying is done every Saturday morning so that the gold and silver is all ready for work during the next week. Whilst I was at Messrs Payton a bar of silver arrived from the merchants in London. It weighed 1154 ounces and was worth £154 wholesale. I was surprised to find it sent in the ordinary way by luggage-train, just as though the box contained nothing of more value than biscuits.

Finishing Touches

There is a separate room where the Diamonds are set. All articles in which the jewels are to be fixed go before one of the partners, and he, taking out a box of jewels, selects the stones he considers suitable. Then the ring and the Diamonds are handed over to the workman. With a sharp tool he presses back the inner edge of the gold where the gem is to be placed, and then placing the stone, brings the edge of gold back again to hold it firm. Great delicacy is required. A cluster of Diamonds in a gold ornament is always set in silver, for silver throws out the beauties of the stones far better than the more precious metal.'


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