The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter at 75-79 Vyse Street was originally a factory producing gold jewellery, which became known worldwide. It was run by the family firm, Smith and Pepper – Mr Smith and his uncle, Mr Pepper. They specialised in a wide range of jewellery, in particular swallow designs and Egyptian-style snake designs, which became popular when Howard Carter (1874-1929) made Egypt popular. Later the business was run by the Smith family and when they stopped trading in 1981 they simply closed the doors and locked them. When Birmingham City Council bought the building and looked inside several years later, they discovered a time capsule where the methods of jewellery production, the techniques used and examples of the working life in the factory had been preserved as if in amber, some of it dating back to 1899. It was opened as a museum in 1992. It tells the 200-year history of the Jewellery Quarter, and is the starting off point for self-guided tours of the area.
The Jewellery Quarter is an area to the north-west of the city centre, and the home to over 700 jewellers. It produces more than 40% of all jewellery made in the UK. It has the largest Assay office, hallmarking about 12 million items a year. It is Europe’s largest concentrated area of jewellery businesses.
Its heyday was the early 1900s, when more than 30,000 people were employed here. Foreign competition took over somewhat in the 20th century, and the area has been transformed gradually into an urban village.
Historically a jeweller in Birmingham can be traced back to one Roger Pemberton as early as 1553. But the jewellery industry really took off in the 18th and 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Glassworks and foundries sprung up and there was a demand for cap badges, pins and metal toys. In 1746 the Colmore family released some land which is where the Jewellery Quarter was constructed.
During the 1700s, a number of fine Georgian houses were built, some of which survive, one villa being lived in by James Watt (1736-1819). Today St Paul’s Square is the only surviving Georgian square in Birmingham.
Gradually manufacturing businesses began to establish a presence in the area. The Assay Office was created in 1773, and the completion of the Birmingham and Fazeley canal in 1789 led to better transport possibilities. Considerable expansion took place in the 19th century and by the middle of that century the jewellery trade was the most lucrative in the city. The peak came in 1914 (and again in 1920), and even during the First World War it thrived due to the demand for military buttons, badges and medals. In the 1920s there was a steady decline, not helped by the Great Depression. The Quarter was then targeted by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.
The decline continued until the Jewellery Quarter was recognised by the City Council and English Heritage as a site of historical importance. Since then it has flourished as an important tourism area, and there has been investment in conservation.