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When Gerald Ratner described one of his store’s products as “total crap”, Birmingham’s leading jewellery manufacturer felt that the former high street retailer probably did the whole industry a favour.
Patrick Fuller, chairman of Weston Beamor, one of the largest surviving manufacturers still based in the city’s jewellery quarter, is in little doubt that if retailers did a better job, UK manufacturers would sell a lot more product.
Although imports account for 70 per cent of the jewellery market, Birmingham’s jewellers still generate 40 per cent of UK production.
H Samuel and other big high street jewellers contract out manufacturing to cheaper suppliers in Asia. Mr Fuller focuses on small orders of higher value pieces, made to meet short delivery times.
Exports account for about half the £25m of sales, with Mr Fuller attending all the big trade fairs armed with a two-inch-thick catalogue — a publication it produces in English, French, German and Flemish for the Antwerp diamond trade. “I think the Jewellery Quarter should be selling nice jewellery for people who cannot afford to buy it at Mappin & Webb,” he says referring to one of the leading high-end retailers. “The city council talks about the lure of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, but if you were French and came here, you wouldn’t find much to buy.”
Weston Beamor employs about 120 staff in the city. The Birmingham Assay Office, which provides hallmarking and materials testing services, is another big employer, as is Cookson, the international bullion trader.
Mr Fuller is positive on the employment outlook, commenting that the average age of his workforce is falling for the first time after recent hires.
The Birmingham School of Jewellery is a particular source of talent — which was not always the case. “It started out as an artisan school that trained mounters and setters for the trade. That went out of vogue and it then became a very nice middle class institution to send your daughter to. Well, I think it’s come full circle. The attitude to the trade has changed completely. It wants to work with us.”
Twenty years ago, there were 3,000 people employed in the Birmingham cluster. The red brick façades, some carrying the old company names in the masonry, are mostly still standing, but many are now offices or trendy apartments for young Brummies with jobs in the city’s growing financial services industry.
“Where Cooksons had foundries all around them, they’ve now got apartment blocks and the people living in the apartments complain about the banging. Well the developer should have thought of that,” says Mr Fuller.
The sector has endured a turbulent few years with sales stalling as consumers melted down unused heirlooms to take advantage of high bullion prices. Gold and silver have fallen back. But Mr Fuller says jewellers still face a particular challenge, manufacturing with what is a speculative material
“We’ve all got stock that has had to be devalued, through no fault of our own, and that causes problems” he says.
Modern jewellery-making still uses the “lost wax” techniques familiar to the Ancient Greeks in their bronze foundries. But Mr Fuller says: “Technology is making its mark in our industry and the challenge for UK manufacturers will be to keep up the investment.”
Weston Beamor has three specialist machines that cut wedding rings from rolled gold bars. It also has several rapid prototyping machines that make more complex pieces using 3D printing technology to produce the computer generated resin models ready for casting.
But not all success stories rely on investment in equipment. A few streets away, James Deakin works in a factory little changed since it was opened in the 1780s.
Deakin & Francis cufflinks sell in Harrods in London and Bloomingdale’s in New York. James and his brother Henry, who both trained as gemmologists, have reinvented the family business as a fashion brand — with prices to match.
When they took charge nine years ago on their father’s retirement, they were making so-called unmarked “white label” jewellery for the wholesale trade. But on a trip to the US, James Deakin quickly realised they were missing a trick.
“Unnoticed by us, our customers were using the name Deakin & Francis as a tool to sell the product.”
A fresh insight into retail thinking came when another potential customer insisted on seeing the packaging before the product. “That was the first time we had any inkling how retailing really works,” he says.
Unlike Weston Beamor, the company has no specialist machine tools, preferring to use the more mechanical process of stamping, where the metal is forced into a steel dye.
“We stamp as much as possible. We use brand new clean metal, unrecycled. That’s important for the enamel work we do. It has to be new metal. If there is any impurity, the enamel will chip off,” he says.
Deakin & Francis hallmarked 34,000 pairs of cufflinks last year. On any day, it would probably have a similar volume in stock, so as to be able to meet short delivery times demanded by its important customers.
“The finance department hates us carrying so much stock. But we believe that if someone wants it, we should be able to give it to them.”