Birmingham, England, was a jewellery manufacturing town from the medieval ages onwards but from the beginning of the 18th century, it became the jewellery manufacturing centre of England. A number of factors were key to its growth. Originally, it was because there was an existing core of skilled craftsmen working in small family firms in the town, but then were added industrialisation of jewellery making, the availability of coal and iron ore in surrounding counties, and the growing wealth in the middle class, resulting in the population increasing from around 7000 in 1700 to around 74,000 by 1801.

Antique sterling silver sovereign case (in Navette on Ruby Lane)

Birmingham became known for producing ‘toys’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a ‘toy’ meant a small and desirable luxury item for adults. Usually it had a function, such as a small gold box to hold stuff, a travelling necessaire, shoe buckles, clocks, walking sticks, pens, watch keys and so on. More and more, though, toys included non-functional luxury items, like diamond rings and other gemstones jewellery, particularly after the introduction of more inexpensive gold standards, 9ct, 12ct and 15ct in the mid 1850s. Less expensive items were also produced, such as pins, buttons and cap badges.

Antique gold floral ring, Birmingham, 1905 (in NavetteJewellery on Etsy)

Innovations such as electroplating and steam powered machines led to the building of small to medium sized factories in what was to become known as the Jewellery Quarter. Some factories produced all stages of a piece of jewellery, including hand work such as enameling, engraving, soldering and polishing while others focused on just one part of the manufacturing process, such as stamping or chain making. Family firms continued to operate as well. Overall, in 1880, about 700 workshops of varying sizes were operating.

The Hallmarking Act 1773 established the Birmingham Assay Office. The hallmarking symbol chosen was an anchor.

Victorian mourning ring

For more on the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, have a look at:

‘The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter’,