Karl Karter, Hatton Garden denizen
Karl Karter, Hatton Garden denizen © Anna Gordon

For those who work in Hatton Garden, London’s historical jewellery quarter, last April’s £14m heist was more than a blow to bottom lines: it was a bitter prompt to reassess the area’s fortunes, which are not what they used to be. When some of the jewels were later found in a cemetery in north-east London, it seemed appropriate for a community that many fear already has one foot in the grave.

The robbers spent the weekend breaking into the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, using heavy cutting equipment, before looting the contents of 56 locked boxes. “We had a box there and it took two and a half months to find out whether or not it was affected,” says Daniel O’Farrell, co-founder of Daniel Christopher Jewellery, which has a store off Hatton Garden on Greville Street. (The police say the operation was “highly complex”, hence time-consuming, and everything was treated as evidence.)

“People lost a lot, many were uninsured. It was mostly small guys working with diamonds who don’t earn a lot of money. Their life savings were gone overnight.” A lack of insurance does not imply they were concealing anything illicit — more that traders trusted in a locked box rather than expensive insurance.

Traders report wrenching stories. One Orthodox Jewish diamond dealer, whose family had escaped the Nazis with diamonds sewn into their clothes, was described as being utterly crushed by the shame of losing some of his hard-won legacy when his uninsured box was stolen. An Indian family went into crisis after a box that had been steadily filled with gold jewellery throughout their daughter’s life was caught up in the heist; they were left fearing that a good marriage was no longer possible without their dowry.

Mr O’Farrell, who has noted an increase in curious shoppers seeking out his store since the heist, was one of the lucky ones whose box was not broken into. However, everyone who had a Hatton Garden Safe Deposit box was affected by the delays as police logged evidence and it created a knock-on effect throughout the community, not unlike the credit crisis of 2007-09 when liquidity bled out of the system.

As work and cash flows seized up while nearly 1,000 boxes were held by police, the situation became tense.

‘It took me barging in with a business card for the police to help us,” says Victoria McKay. Ms McKay is the chief operating officer of the London Diamond Bourse, a not-for-profit organisation funded by its members that acts as a trading floor on Hatton Garden for diamond dealers. Ms McKay, members say, has modernised and publicised what has long been an introverted and secretive bourse. (A trade publication said it was “shrouded in mystery”.)

Formal meetings between Ms McKay and the police followed and soon a flow of information started to ease the situation, if not immediately fix the problems. Ms McKay, meanwhile, pledged to offer assistance to all victims caught in the heist, not only bourse members. “For the uninsured, it was tea and sympathy,” she says. For others, it was pressing the police and Hatton Garden Safe Deposit for information, or passing on security advice from meetings with the Bank of England.

“Hatton Garden ground to a halt,” she says. But neighbourliness, and perhaps a feeling of “there but for the grace of God”, won out: “They started giving each other stock, or lending out tools.”

Gem dealer Trevor Sigsworth corroborates Ms McKay’s role: “The bourse acted in the interests of the whole jewellery quarter and gave victims somewhere to turn to; this enabled the whole trade to feel confident that an organisation was looking after their interests at a higher level than they could individually.”

When a break in the case led to some of the stolen goods being recovered — one of the criminals admitted stashing his proceeds in a family plot in a graveyard in north-east London — the bourse helped police identify the jewellery and diamonds, expediting their return to the original owners with appropriate secrecy for a security-conscious industry.

The role of the London Diamond Bourse has so far been unreported, eclipsed by the audacity of the crime and the derring-do of colourful culprits like “Billy the fish” Lincoln. (Such was the drama that a feature film based on the robbery is now planned.) And now that seven men have been convicted and sentenced to a total of 34 years, the focus is spreading beyond the crime, to the future of a specialist retail area that has been haemorrhaging footfall for the past half century.

In the 1960s, its heyday, Hatton Garden actually had many fewer jewellery shops than today — one-third of today’s number, some jewellers estimate. (The Hatton Garden Business Improvement District says there are 60 shops and 300 businesses connected with the jewellery industry in the area.) Yet it was the go-to destination for hopeful fiancés and newly engaged couples from London and the surrounding area. Now it is seen as a street to find a bargain, fuelled by jewellers undercutting each other and the rise of so-called emporiums that rent out multiple cabinets within one shop unit, complete with sales staff on the steps outside, pulling in passers-by like bar reps in cheap holiday destinations.

Hatton Garden for Special Reports. Looking at how the area was affected by the 2015 Break in. 6/2/2016 Workshop of London Art Works. Matt Martin Workshop Manager
Matt Martin of London Art Works © FT

“It has been hard for jewellers [in Hatton Garden] to work cohesively in the past, which has allowed it to drift,” says Gary Williams, a director at Hatton Garden precious metal refiner Pressman Mastermelt, who has also served as the chairman of the British Jewellers Association.

One of the major competitors for jewellery retail is Mayfair. David Marshall, who has been working in Hatton Garden for 36 years, opened his first shop in 2013 in Mayfair. “My product wouldn’t sell here, it’s too price-conscious,” says Mr Marshall, whose work sells for up to £300,000.

He believes the discount culture, low footfall and a lack of other attractions in an area dominated by law firms and digital agencies, marooned between the bustling West End and the fashionable East End, are hobbling Hatton Garden.

This is a view shared by Jason Holt, who owns a shop on the street called Holts, specialising in handmade jewellery set with coloured gemstones cut by its own lapidaries in the basement of the building. “What looks good to me is something like Marylebone High Street,” says Mr Holt. “It has very strong landlords that worked out that creating a good vibe and a multiple-purpose destination will benefit the whole.”

This is one of the major focuses of the newly formed Hatton Garden Business Improvement District, which was championed by Mr Holt, though he does not hold an official role. (The key jewellery representatives are Mr Williams and Ms McKay.) The BID was formed in the shadow of the heist in October 2015, the same month in which police were digging up some of the recovered loot from a graveyard in Edmonton.

Hatton Garden has been a centre of commerce for hundreds of years and there are now 1,465 businesses operating in the area, according to the BID. While the jewellery trade has deep roots in Hatton Garden — De Beers opened its Charterhouse Street office in the 1870s — retail stores did not open until 1951, starting with AR Ullmanns, which has since moved from the main drag to Greville Street.

Hatton Garden for Special Reports. Looking at how the area was affected by the 2015 Break in. 6/2/2016 Presman Mastermelt. Precious metal recycling company Stephen Gallagher Production Manager.
© FT

The Hatton Garden BID aims to serve all types of businesses in the area, not only jewellers, according to its website, and is being led by regeneration consultancy Primera. It will be funded in future by a mandatory levy on business rates for the larger companies in the area, pending a ballot of local businesses in July. Its broad focus, however, is not wholly welcome news for the industry that lays historical claim to the street and which is already feeling the pressure of commercial gentrification. (One jeweller said, “Being part of the BID is like [the UK] staying in Europe — we need to have a seat at the table.”)

While David Marshall is in favour of regeneration, he says that an exodus of the smaller businesses will affect the livelihood of the local jewellery trade. “At the moment I can nip round the corner and get a diamond trimmed if it doesn’t fit, then get it set. If everyone moved out, the logistics would be slower at a time when we are looking to get things done more efficiently.”

According to Alistair Subba Row, senior partner at Farebrother chartered surveyors and a leading member of the Hatton Garden BID team, regeneration was inevitable — and is in fact overdue. “Because [Hatton Garden] is predominantly jewellers, the opportunities were limited as the type of spaces available didn’t appeal to everybody.”

This has started to change as the creative media businesses flocking to Hatton Garden are not interested in “vanilla office space”, Mr Subba Row says. Instead they want trendy, interesting spaces such as converted warehouses and churches — buildings Hatton Garden is full of.

Hatton Garden for Special Reports. Looking at how the area was affected by the 2015 Break in. 6/2/2016 Presman Mastermelt. Precious metal recycling company Stephen Gallagher Production Manager.
© FT

This demand will increase with the arrival of Crossrail at nearby Farringdon in 2018 as companies seek space beyond prime central London. The Hatton Garden BID estimates that office rental prices in the area currently sit between £40 to £60 per square foot; in Mayfair, they can go up to £115, according to Savills.

“Hatton Garden can’t sit there and say no, because it’s not entitled to do so, but the aim is not to have the jewellery industry run out of town because of high rents, so we need to find ways to work with them to stimulate the local economic development,” says Mr Subba Row. The question is, as ever, the balance between the past and the future.

The Hatton Garden BID team believes that if the area as a whole improves and diversifies, more people will visit, leading to higher sales at jewellery retailers and more work for the hidden network of manufacturers.

However, it is also trying to protect the jewellery industry by working with Camden Council to put pressure on developers to create affordable workshop spaces. There have been successes already, with the number of proposed jewellery workshops in the repurposed Baldwins Garden development doubled by rejigging the floor plan. Pllanning approval for a large basement gym at 120 Holborn was granted on the proviso that part of that building is given over to jewellery workshops.

But for some of the newer jewellery businesses, the good intentions of the BID still feel like an advanced eviction notice. “It’s quite depressing for me as I’m looking for a shop at the moment and I’m having to look at Islington [a nearby district],” says Karl Karter, founder of London Rocks. He says now Hatton Garden landlords prefer media businesses to jewellery manufacturers.

London Rocks is a collective of young jewellery designers focusing on modern, bespoke designs that Karter describes as “a mix of art, fashion and craftsmanship”. Even though the mean age of this group is way below the street’s average, they feel bound to the area. “Hatton Garden is part of my brand’s story,” says Mr Karter. “I started here as a 15-year-old, I grew up here. Hatton Garden to me is just dead now, it’s bleak.”

The fate of the building that has put Hatton Garden’s jewellery community back on the map is perhaps the most perfect example of the dichotomy the area is facing. David Pearl of landlord Pearl & Coutts, who has acquired the lease of 88-90 Hatton Garden, the site of the now liquidated Hatton Garden Safe Deposit, is yet to make up his mind on what to do with it. Rumours of his plans, which he has neither confirmed nor denied, are split between a jewellery heist museum and an upmarket wine bar.

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