The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter
The story of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter covers three hundred years of industrial innovation and jewellery craft tradition - far beyond the scope of a small website write-up. However it would be remiss of me not to mention or pay tribute to the inspirational people, great work, amazing objects and entreprenurial spirit that pervades this small but vibrant district on the outskirts of the city. The area today remains a close knit community where most people know each other. It is richly populated by independant craftsmen possessing a diverse pool of skills.
Gold & Silversmiths, Gemstone dealers, Bullion dealers, Engravers, Chasers, Enamellers, Polishers, Stone Setters, Stone Cutters, Assay office workers, Tool Suppliers, Die sinkers, Spinners, Stampers, Piercers, Chain makers, Electroplaters, and Box Makers all still populate the area today. The manufacture of jewellery and small decorative metalwares, calls for a complex combination of machine and hand skills not to mention a good measure of dedication and ingenuity. The craftsmen of this area still sit at the traditional jewellers bench with cut out recesses under which skins are fixed to catch gold dust and findings. Many hand tools used would be instantly recognisable to the jeweller of Ancient Greece Rome or Rennaisance Europe. Infact studies of the hand tools seen on engravings from the 15th Century onwards reveals virtually nothing that cannot be found today in the Jewellery Quarters myriad of small
independant workshops. A peek into the jewellers world within any workshop leaves any visitor feeling mesmerised and awestruck by the manner in which wonderful shining treasures emerge from quaint and what might by todays standards be described as almost Dickensian surroundings. Craftsmen turning out highly individualised commissioned hand made items sit along side high volume manufacturers supplying the high street retail sector. The jewellery quarter accomodates both ends of the market with the latter often calling upon the individualised skills of the former. Within a modern world this attachment and loyalty to age old practices is rare, commendable and virtually unique. A pleasure to see and experience, Long may it continue.
The Jewellery Quarter by Jayne Hayward June 1990
A little bit of Solder, A small amount of heat
A smart tap on a triblet to make it look so neat
A little buff and polish to make it shine & glisten
The music of gentle tapping, You can hear it ..... listen
It could be Gold or Silver, Jewellery for a king
Brooch Pin or Bracelet or even a wedding ring
The future may be with us but it will never alter,
The timeless tradition, That is the Jewellery Quarter.
Scottish Pebble Jewellery
Scottish Pebble Jewellery was produced from around 1850 until well into the 20th Century. The fashion for these trinkets did not go into decline until the begining of the first world war. Although there may be exceptions most collectors agree that the earlier victorian pebble jewellery examples are of superior quality and craftsmanship and tend to be the most collectible pieces.
Queen Victoria herself had a love affair with Scotlands heritage and culture and such royal credence assisted Scotland in developing its own tourist trade. Local jewellers response to the increased tourist trade was to produce a mosaic souvenier jewellery made from precious metal and native stones. Hence the early pieces of pebble jewellery were indeed made in Scotland. Edinburgh became the centre for Scottish production and it is thought that around 1000 people were employed during the 1870's in the scottish jewellery trade.
As the craze for scottish trinkets grew and demand continued to increase Birmingham Jewellery Quarter also became involved in the production of Pebble jewellery. The Birmingham pieces incorporate a far more diverse range of materials as stone was imported from Germany India and Africa to help fulfil demand.
Since the great majority of this jewellery was not hallmarked it is nowdays often difficult to determine exactly where a piece was made.
Stones used include Sardonyx, Montrose Agate, Mocha agate, Carnelian, Malachite, Chalcedony Bloodstone Granite and Jaspers principally in Red Mustard and Browns. Quartz was also used in the form of Amethysts Citrine and Cairngorms. Many of the stones used were heat treated and dyed to create colours of greater intentisy. Simulated Amethyst and Citrine were also sometimes used. The agates themselves are generally held in place by Shellac.
Victorian Pebble jewellery originally took inspiration from from historic celtic and scottish folklaw and the jewellery that formed part of traditional highland dress. Integrated into designs were traditional scottish emblems such as the Cross of St Andrew, Shields, Knots, Crests and Clan symbols.
With production underway at Birmingham however typical scottish designs soon gave way to more a more english themes such as Serpents and Buckled Straps (signifying the order of the garter) horseshoes, anchors, bows, stars, arrows, leaves, shells etc.
The engraving on the mounts of the jewellery is generally very intricate all of which was hand done and pins most often tend to made from steel.
Types of items found include traditional plaid brooches, miniature dirk kilt pins, bracelets, earrings, pendants, belt buckles, cufflinks, stamp boxes, matchsafes, and sovereign holders. Necklaces were also made but are much rarer to find.
The early origins of Vauxhall glass are uncertain. There are two schools of thought as to who first produced this rather remarkable distinctive jewellery.
The first is that the jewellery is believed to take its name from the glass factory owned by the Duke of Buckingham in a district called Vauxhall situated on the outskirts of London. The factory opened in 1663 although the first mirror glass was thought to be produced there in the 1770's.
The other theory is that the first Vauxhall glass was produced by Dawson Bowles & Co. who were located near Vauxhall Gardens in London and were glass makers from Venice and that the jewellery was a sideline of the mirror factory.
The 19th century is however the most prolific production period for mirror glass jewellery. During this time its manufacture moved to the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, Patents were taken out and most of the pieces found today were produced between 1860 - 1880. A most notable Birmingham manufacturer was Elijah Atkins - but there were most likely others as well.
This thin highly reflective mirror glass was produced by a silvering process (like the way they make mirrors). The silvering is often seen on the reverse - either intact or in residual traces.
The glass was fashioned with cutting that typically emulates either rose cuts or shapes with very flat-cut facets and large tables.
A number of colors were produced including white, black, crimson, burgundy, and purple. Shades of blue and green seem to be rarer.
An interesting point regarding production technique was that the burgundy colour was made by adding gold (gold chloride) to the glass formula. The red colour materialises after the glass undergoes a second heating.
Certain shapes seem to crop up again and again - the fly shape is one of the more commonly seen designs as are navette flower shapes.
Rarer pieces known to exist are a Crown and Maltese Cross.
In an ID of Vauxhall glass look for the following things:
Must be made in England ?
Must be "Silvered" Mirror Glass Finish - which is very distinctive. Looks for evidence of the silvering process on the reverse
Must be Victorian or earlier
Metal Settings are always costume brass or jappaned metal. This jewellery is not seen in gold or silver settings
A fair amount of czech jewellery appears on ebay misdescribed as Vauxhall so for the inexperienced it is a matter of buyer beware. Those who collect Vauxhall will corroborate the fact that in reality this is not easy jewellery to imitate, it has very distinctive qualities that cannot be easily imitated by even the best czech jewellery.
Paste is a collective word used for cut leaded glass that is faceted to resemble gems or precious stones. It is a type of glass that is harder than window glass but can still be easily scratched and damaged.
The origins of the term is unknown. However it is speculative that it may be a throwback referring to old Italian Glass makers and derived from the Italian Pasta (pastry). Possibly used by the early Italian Lapidaries and Jewellers as a mocking term when referring to the softness of glass paste compared to gemstones.
Sometimes paste may be referred to as Strass. Georges Frederic Strass, a Parisian jeweler residing in Paris in Mid 18th Century France lends his name to these stones. Strass or Strasser is a fairly common name in Austria and it may well be the case that Josef was Viennese since there was a tradition of fine glass manufacture in Vienna. From around 1730 Josef became world famous for his paste jewelry.
Two distinct types of glass were used to make paste
Flint glass was produced from Silica, Lead Oxide and potash or Soda. This type of glass was particularily bright, reflective and more suitable for faceting so was most commonly used for emulating diamonds.
Bottle glass was produced from Silica Lime and Potash of Soda together with various oxides that colour the glass. This type of glass was used more for the manufacture of coloured paste and generally tends to be molded rather than cut. The english glass centres of Bristol famously produced much high quality coloured paste and also noteworthy was Uttoxeter in Derbyshire where a great deal of good quality opal paste was manufactured. The factories producing the paste were not in any way involved with the final end result manufacture of jewellery. The glass paste was made then shipped to Birmingham and London for Jewellers to work with and set into jewellery.
The demand for paste in the 18th century was ever growing largely due to changes in social conditions and the rise of prosperous middle classes who could not afford to rival the upper classes with displays of diamonds but found paste to be an admirable substitute. The upper classes favoured it for travelling purposes as its posed much less risk from highwaymen. Even Marie Antoinette herself looked favourably upon owning paste jewellery
Styles and settings of paste jewellery follows closely that of precious jewellery of the same period. A jeweller who was one week setting bow brooches, floral sprays, tiaras, openwork bracelets and shoe buckles with diamonds could well find himself the following week setting the same carefully crafted gold and silver items with paste. Claw settings were very often left open backed where as pave or rub-over settings were very often closed backed and foiled. The same highly skilled workmanship was present in both paste and precious jewellery and it is this that gives paste jewellery of the 18th century its importance. Apart from the subsitution of paste for diamonds there was very little difference between them. Infact the craftsmanship required to cut paste is said to be more demanding and difficult than the art of cutting diamonds.
Most highly collectible Strass or Paste jewelry ranges from the 18th century through about 1850, but this does not signify and end for Paste. The word was then to become permanently synonimous with glass stones emulating precious gemstones. This umberella term used to define high quality imitation stones was also used throughout the 19th Century. The import of bohemian paste sourced in other areas of the world including Austria and Czechoslovakia was to have a mojor influence on victorian jewellery.
Paste jewelry especially early examples are expensive and desirable. 18th century paste especially is praised for its soft mellow colour, lustre, and beautiful shimmer. Whilst true that it is undoubtedly attractive this mellowing is no more intended by those old jewellers than the patina we love on an old master. The softening effect cause by the passage of time is generally attributed to a loss of polish that occurs during the course of years and the effects of exposure to sulpher which is unavoidable with modern city life.
Black Dot Paste
Black dot paste is paste which has a tiny black dot painted on the very bottom underside of the stone. It is thought to have mimicked the open culet of early diamond cuts, which often look quite dark or black. The culet is the bottom of the stone, where with today's modern stone cuts all the facets come to a perfect point. In years past, the facets did not meet in a point but joined around a flat area on the bottom. Black dot paste is one hallmark of very fine quality paste however, should not be considered exclusively so. There are many examples of excellent high quality paste which do not have these tiny black dots.
Czech Jewellery - Max Neiger
Of all the jewellery produced in Gablonz at the turn of the century - the most sought after pieces were produced by the Neiger Brothers.
Max & Norbert Neiger were brothers and in tune with the rest of the the jewellery line was started by in the basement of the Neiger home in 1900, 19 year old Norbert had just completed the Gablonz technical schools bjouterie classes. With early successes at selling his goods he transferred his workshop to Berggasse.
At this stage his younger brother joined him in the venture. One of the early production lines was a long egyptian style necklace composed of silk strung beads and a mummy shape pendant.
The brothers assumed different responsibilities in the company. Norbert ran the business and Max headed the workshop and designed the jewellery.
After WW1 the brothers made Max's designs exclusively and eventually also included lines like scent bottles with stamped filigree and stones. Demand from America and England caused the expansion of the business and in 1926 they moved into new premises in Berbrigstrasse / Perlengasse - at this time they had 2 dozen employees with more tasks being distributed to cottage workers. The company emerged from a long tradition of Gurtler craftmanship in the Gablonz area. The Gurtlers were prefessional metalsmiths who primarily worked in non precious metals and silver (sometimes gilded) .
The most important retailers & exporters bought from the Neigers. They were prolific and held extremely effective presentations of each new collection with all important clients asked to assemble.
As well as gilded finishes they also produced finishes that were chromium plated - No filigree was ever used (presumably this refers just to the jewellery lines) - jewellery composed of enamelled small elements and small stamped elements impressed with patterns sometimes floral, and set with glass stones. There was a balance between the Gurtlers own free artistic imagination and some adaption to the requests of the customers. The Neigers were far from the world centres of fashion, so were forced very much to adapt to the market they were in - very often customers and clients came to Galblonz after passing through Paris bringing with them the latest novelty jewellery and then asked the Neigers to copy the designs.
The creations stood out enough to inspire other local manufacturers in the area to produce similar type items. The Neigers did not stamp their own parts but bought them from
estamperies like Scheibler - this gave other makers (also able to purchase the exact same parts) the opportunity to participate in the commercial success of Neiger designs. Items are not signed and the Neigers both lived with and tolerated the competion. There were legal means in place to impede outright copying, so modification of the Neigers design was rife. Jewellery produced by other locals does not generally equal the Neigers in craftmanship. This also in some way explains why much Neiger Jewellery is very often desribed as being "attributed to Max Neiger" rather than made by him.
A former employee of the Neigers started his own gurtler workshop in the 1920's and tried to sell immitations but the Neigers were able to take necessary steps to stop him and his entire production was confiscated.
The Neigers were considered the most desirable employers in Gablonz with 34 employees at one point - 16 were gurtlers.
In 1938 Gablonz was taken as part of the German Reich - the Neigers were Jewish and initially escaped into the adjacent Czech part of Bohemia where they continued to work on a small scale. They were later arrested in prague and in 1942 they were killed at Auschwitz.
Information adapted from: Baubles Buttons & Beads The Heritage of Bohemia - Sibylle Jargstorf