30 Mar 2017

Birmingham Manufactures Project; The School of Jewellery

Although Birmingham is famously known as the City of a Thousand Trades, one trade shines particularly brightly in its history and self-identity - and not only because of its association with precious metals. That trade is, of course, the jewellery trade. 

The beginnings of Birmingham’s jewellery trade lie in its history as a metal working town and with the production of steel and silver buckles, buttons, and trinkets in the eighteenth century. 

By the nineteenth century, the jewellery trade had concentrated around the Jewellery Quarter to the north of the old town. Here, craftspeople worked in small-scale workshops, often in highly specialised tasks. A metal ‘blank’ might be cut at one workshop, stamped at another, and set, polished and finished at another. In comparison to goods produced in towns like London and Edinburgh, Birmingham was known for producing cheaper, less-high quality goods, often referred to scathingly as ‘Brummagem’ ware. This is hardly a fair assessment of the high quality work produced by some firms and makers operating in the Jewellery Quarter, but education in design and workmanship was a key concern of industrialists in this period. 

It was in the nineteenth century that a number of civic institutions interested in the education of the workforce were established. One of these educative establishments was the Vittoria Street School for Jewellers and Silversmiths, which was set up as a trade school on Vittoria Street in 1890, and is the subject of this blog post.

School of Jewellery
School of Jewellery, Birmingham City University, Vittoria Street.

Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery now occupies the site, and its students, like those before them, sit at benches in workshops where they learn the skills of the craft practised just beyond its doors. The Vittoria Street School is an important part of Birmingham’s municipal history; the School was a point of contact between the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and the technical prowess of its local workforce.

The work of some famous alumni and teachers from the School are well represented in the collection at Birmingham Museums, and are on display in the galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  For the purposes of this blog post, I’d like to focus on something a little different. As we were investigating the stores at the Museum Collection Centre, we came across a group of objects that are really quite unusual.  By cross-referencing these items with the museum catalogue and archive records, we discovered that this collection of objects were made by students whilst studying at the School of Jewellery. 

Collage of School of Jewellery pieces
The student pieces from the School of Jewellery are being photographed as part of the Birmingham Manufactures project.

Museum collections very rarely include items such as this. Museums tend to bear the legacy of collecting policies that focus on ‘good’ design and workmanship, on exceptional pieces and connoisseurial provenance. The everyday and the process of making have only recently become a priority for museum collection. This is arguably even more so with objects like jewellery where it makes much more financial sense for valuable materials to be melted down to be re-used by students or sold off to metal dealers. Luckily for the museum, William Thomas Blackband, a onetime headmaster of the School of Jewellery, saved some of the work completed by his students from the furnace, and they have come into the possession of the museum through a descendant of his. 

We know very little about these items. Although all but one of these pieces are anonymous and tell us little about the person who made them specifically, they do offer an extraordinary insight into the acquisition of skills. In the slight inaccuracies of application and miscalculations about material and design, we get a sense of just how demanding the training at the School of Jewellery was and how technically proficient jewellers needed to be to ‘get on’ in the trade. 

Here are a couple of examples of this collection and close ups of each, highlighting the slight inaccuracies and the fact that the makers of these pieces were still very much in training. Despite referring to these as inaccuracies, they actually show us more information on the processes used that the finely honed styles of the professionals who taught them.

Exanples of the student pieces from the School of Jewellery

Exanples of the student pieces from the School of Jewellery