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The Economic Value of the Jewellery Quarter of London

Posted April 25, 2013

The economic value of clusters of activity – for example, the car industry in Coventry, computer technology in Cambridge, the fine art galleries in Cork Street in London – are now recognised as playing a major part in the recovery of the economy of the UK.  Research conducted in the US demonstrates the value of sharing knowledge and attracting the brightest and best skilled workers into business communities – investing in the future.

Hatton Garden is one of those clusters.  For over a century, it flourished as a centre for sorting, cutting and polishing diamonds, but by the 1970’s, the area had becoming dirty and run down.  The diamond industry was in danger of losing the skills, the knowledge, and the active and thriving businesses that they supported as the local council chose to invest funds in areas London north of the Euston Road and ignore the problems developing in the south of the borough.  A group of retailers formed a local traders association and employed a surveyor who prepared a proposal of improvements to lay before the council.  But the council were not interested and the scheme was shelved.

In the 1980’s, the new Tory government changed the way in which VAT was collected on imported goods – and raised interest rates to record and terrifying levels!  Diamond merchants and stone dealers, many of whom had established their businesses here as refugees during and after WWII, left Hatton Garden and returned to Antwerp, or moved to the growing economies of Israel and the far east.  The traders association was revived but it failed to stop the rapid decline.

By the 1990’s, many of the large buildings that had been used as jewellery or diamond manufacturing factories were empty, over half the shops were boarded up; rubbish was piled around lamposts or thrown into basement areas; the streets were no longer cleaned. Once again, the retailers revived the trade association and I was asked to work with them, to create a new proposal to promote Hatton Garden as a centre for fine jewellery, diamonds and precious gems.  This time, our proposal included recommendations to the council to apply to the government for grants to make some much needed improvements to the street furniture and buildings – and also to place a conservation order on the area to protect it from further decline.  And this time it worked!

Early in the 21st century, after 30 years of effort, the London Borough of Camden appointed an officer to look after what is now known as the jewellery quarter of London and funds were allocated to support initiatives to underpin the industry in the area, including setting up a school for lapidary and jewellery, new workshops specially designed for gold and silversmiths, and a gallery to display the work of young designers.  Over 60 shops are open now for business on the streets, and craftsmen and women are, once again, coming here to work, to use the services of one of the workshops, or to buy the tools, equipment and raw materials.

The Goldsmiths Centre

In the summer of 2012, the Goldsmiths’ Livery Company opened the Goldsmiths’ Centre in Britton Street, Clerkenwell, with workshops, exhibition areas and a school for apprentices.  The emphasis is on design with manufacture and the development of new training schemes for apprentices which the jewellery industry badly needs if the industry is to thrive in the 21st century.  Throughout the 1980’s and ’90’s, we saw the decline of the technical colleges and jewellery schools that taught school leavers the skills of setting, polishing, casting and basic manufacturing, and that has left the jewellery industry with a shortage of experienced craftsmen and women.  The Goldsmiths Centre will reverse that trend.

So is that it then?  Will it all end happily ever after?  Have we won the battle to keep Hatton Garden ring-fenced as the jewellery quarter of London or will I still hear people say “it is not viable to manufacture between the city and the west end of London“?  I recently learnt that large areas of Cork Street have been sold to Standard Life and a property development company called Native Land, who plan to knock down the beautiful 18th century buildings that house the art galleries and turn it into yet more blocks of flats. Recent changes in the planning laws will make the passage of their application very easy, despite the fact that a dozen art galleries will be forced to move out and those that remain will find that trading conditions become very difficult.

Hatton Garden and many more of London’s villages  – especially those that are in areas yet to be gentrified and currently providing cheap accommodation for young entrepreheurs – will never be safe when so much city money is at stake.   So watch this space …

Image:  FlexiLink diamond line bracelet from the Diamonds for Today Collection.  For further information email info@idjc.com . Photograph by Paul Hartley, Hartley Studios: www.hartleystudios.com

Photograph of The Goldsmiths Centre by Morley Von Sternberg.  Reproduced by kind permission of The Goldsmiths Centre