Jewellery is personal. Each morning, many of us slip the same couple of pieces around our necks or wrists and put the same items into our ears or onto our fingers. They might not be precious by anyone’s standards but our own, but what we wear – from wedding rings to our favourite summer earrings – says a lot about us.
For hundreds of years, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter – which has one of Europe’s largest concentrations of manufacturing jewellers – has been creating highly-personal jewellery. From the gothic to the minimalistic or the eccentric, HuffPost UK spoke to five designers based in the heart of the area.
“There’s always someone who knows someone who knows the answer to a problem” - Kate Smith Jewellery
“I left university in London to find the Jewellery Quarter 18 years ago,” says Kate Smith. “It was a place where friends were already located and being from the Midlands, it ended up being a place I felt at home.
“I’m naively going to say I personally don’t think the Jewellery Quarter is competitive as there’s so many of us, but we’re all different.
“When you’re self-employed, it can feel quite isolating and though there’s only one other person that works with me full time at my company, in the Jewellery Quarter there’s always someone who knows someone who knows the answer to a problem.
“There are so many people with so many skills - from stone setters to media agencies and photographers - that it’s valuable to be in reach of everything.
“There’s a spot for everyone and the community feels so diverse, even through all the changes I’ve seen in Birmingham, especially in the past five years. With all the new residential work and the new people passing by, there’s hope here for even more community.”
“I’ve been able to pass this onto my son and teach him everything I know” - Victoria James
“We were just jewellery manufacturers until 15 years ago, but now every day we’re designing and working closely with people who care about what they buy, which is so pleasing,” says founder of Victoria James Geoff Hinton.
“We work literally hand-to-hand with our customers and we can see this personal service becoming rapidly popular. Rarely does anyone want to just buy the same thing from H Samuel.
“The couples who walk in to buy their engagement ring now are so design-led.
“Before, it was the man who’d walk in and hesitantly choose something for his future wife, but now there’s more equality when selecting something significant.
“A man brought in a ring he bought for his wife 40 years ago and wanted it to be changed so she could wear it for another 20-30 years and I realised it was one of the first pieces I had personally created.
“In the end he didn’t change it, but just got it refurbished. Jewellery, from the trade to whoever buys it for someone else, is the most sentimental [purchase]. It’s one of the only things that can be passed on to the next.
“I’ve passed the business on to my son – he and his generation care so much more about quality and buying responsibly than designers did 20 years ago. Though we source our stones worldwide, you have to work with people you trust. And that’s what this entire space is.”
“The Jewellery Quarter will always be our home - this is the only place to be”- Bond Jewellery.
Jamie Beech set up Bond Jewellery five years ago out of frustration. He felt the industry was full of jewellery imported from abroad with lots of confusion among buyers, so he wanted his jewellery to be completely personalised from start to finish. “It’s all about creating with the client instead of trying to force them to buy something,” says Beech, who feels an affinity with the Jewellery Quarter.
“It is the only place to open if you’re working in the jewellery industry. It’s stunning. You can have a satellite shop anywhere else, but this is where British jewellery heritage lies.
“Here, everywhere you look, there are manufacturers in every nook and cranny, it’s fascinating and a good environment to be in. There are connections here for basically everything, so it feels as though I can offer everything the customer wishes for - from the simple to the really extravagant.”
As each piece of jewellery is custom-made - even the most simple of wedding bands - each one has a story behind it. “We had a couple come in with their friends. One girl thought she was helping the other choose a ring but really she was designing her own ring by saying what she preferred – she completely chose her own diamonds without even realising it. The whole team were in on it,” he says.
“When you’re allowed to be innovative because you’re working directly with your client, work doesn’t feel like work.”
“Who wants to look the same as everyone else?” - Rhiannon Lewis Jewellery.
Rhiannon Lewis moved from London to Birmingham six years ago and has not looked back since. Her jewellery brand has gone from emerging to established with the help of the community in the Jewellery Quarter.
“I firmly believe things should stay quite classic,” she says. “When it comes to jewellery, I’m all about clean lines, the very well-made and really beautiful gem stones. As well as having my own collections - they’re more evolutionary than season led - I’m commissioned for bespoke work. At the moment, I’m interested in more subdued colours, a lot of blush tones, think white topaz you can wear all year round.
“We are not a mass manufactured company for a reason. I like the freedom of it - the creativity, the creative process, meeting all sorts of people and being involved in their special things and days.
“The Jewellery Quarter is such an established space that it nourishes you as a designer. I don’t just work here but I live here too. It’s a really supportive atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or been in the trade for 20 years, people will respect what you do.
“It’s important to support local spaces and artists because if everything becomes high street and mass-made we lose identity, we lose individuals and we lose independent market. Who wants to look the same as everyone else?”
“It’s a nice trade to be in, we’re dealing with happy people” - Element Bespoke Jewellery.
Joe Mcgarr enjoys the solace found in jewellery making. His work for his own brand, Element Bespoke Jewellery, is all about making others happy with meaningful pieces.
“Being a jewellery designer is a trade to be in. We’re dealing with happy people and countless special days,” he says. “We don’t just make a piece to be up to standard, it has to be perfect.
“I think people head to the jewellery quarter for the personalisation and even sustainability in jewellery. I do see more buyers and even jewellery designers working with a lot of recycled materials, melting jewellery down instead of importing it.
“It’s really important that as more technical skills come into play [with jewellery designers], students learn trade skills from not just now, but 50 years or even more ago. In this shop, we can make things by hand – in 20, 30 years this may not be the case but it’s important these skills live on”.
HuffPostListens – Birmingham
HuffPost wants to get out of the media bubble and tell the real story of the UK. For one week in July we relocated our newsroom to the heart of Birmingham and invited people to tell us what they care about - we listened, followed their tips, and went out and reported on
what we heard. We’re also hiring more reporters out of London, starting in Birmingham. We don’t think the media has listened to people enough, so that’s what we’re doing. Listening to the stories of Birmingham, opening up our newsroom to its people and telling the real story of Britain from the heart of one of its biggest and best cities. You decide the news. We’ll tell your story. Birmingham, be heard. #HuffPostListens
Read more about the project here.