Precious metals have been worked in Birmingham since the 14th century but the industry really prospered from 1660. King Charles II returned from exile in France after the Civil War and brought back a taste for fancy buttons and shoe buckles.
As this fashion spread, metal workers and artisans turned out thousands of pieces in steel and later used silver and burnished gold inlaid with coloured glass and gemstones. They also made trinket boxes, called ‘Brummagen toys’ and jewellery.
Development in the Quarter was rapid. Substantial houses were built for the manufacturers and the artisans lived in more modest terraces. As the expansion of trade continued, workshops sprang up in gardens and workbenches were installed in the houses. Different skills and expertise made people in the area reliant on one another and the Jewellery Quarter was established. Matthew Boulton, the famous industrialist, played a key role with his Soho Manufactory and his successful mission to establish Birmingham’s own Assay Office.
Royal fashions continued to affect the fortunes of the Jewellery Quarter. It also become famous for its pen nibs when Joseph Gillott perfected the technique of machine-manufactured steel nibs. This contributed to the spread of literacy and writing to the working classes.
In the early 20th century the jewellery trade and supporting trades employed some 60,000 people. But by 1920, demand for products manufactured in the Jewellery Quarter began to decline. By 1985 the number of people employed in the jewellery industry had dropped to 4,000. Physical changes started to take place and by the end of the 20th century major regeneration work had taken place in the form of apartments, offices, work/live units and retail.
The area continues to prosper and it is the desire of all who live, work and invest in the Quarter to preserve its heritage while transforming this remarkable place into the prosperous area that it once was.