Sunday, 2 September 2007

Dead letter drop

There are pockets of decay and dereliction in the Jewellery Quarter which can be oddly beautiful, but regeneration is rapidly changing this. Sadly, the first casualty of regeneration is often the very character – the grain, the grit – that made the area interesting. The spaces in which the imagination can roam become fewer and fewer.

A derelict doorway is as mysterious as an entrance to another time.

The nameplates and letterboxes of long-disappeared companies are postboxes to the past.

A letter dropped through any of these would fall as quietly as dust onto the bare boards of a Dickensian workshop.

Motorists are poised to drive off into the 1950s with a cheery wave and a doff of the trilby...

In the nineteenth century, the Jewellery Quarter and surrounding area was the centre of world pen nib manufacturing, exporting an estimated 1,500 million nibs a year around the world. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, each nib cost the equivalent of 12.5p; at the height of production costs stood at about 1.25p per 144 nibs. Fuelled by rising levels of literacy and the need to service an Imperial bureacracy, industrialisation slashed manufacturing costs by about 99.9%.

But the manufacture of pen nibs is now just part of an increasingly remote past, lost but for the volunteer efforts of local historians and heritage societies.

Jewellery manufacture too is migrating to where labour costs are lowest. Just a couple of years ago I was waiting for a copy of Ed van der Elsken's wondeful book of photographs, HONG KONG: AS IT WAS, to arrive. I had ordered it from the online bookseller, ABE.

One dark afternoon just before Christmas there was a knock on the office door. I opened it and a beefy man in his late-50s was standing there with a neatly wrapped brown paper parcel. It was my copy of HONG KONG.

The man explained that he and a partner had a small jewellery factory just a couple of streets away. They were trying to make a new future for themselves as secondhand booksellers. He had looked out of the window as he was packing my book and realised that the seventh floor offices he could see probably included mine. He decided to save the postage. His factory was closed and the machinery was up for sale – possibly to a party of Chinese businessmen: he was quietly hopeful – but meanwhile it made useful packing benches and storage shelves for the secondhand book stock they had invested in. It seems inconceivable that the pair's new business can hope to survive.

Here and there, though, there are new designer-makers starting up and in some cases they have a different and more arts-oriented take on jewellery, seeing it as much as body-art as they do conventional ornamentation. Perhaps these different traditions have always co-existed. My nextdoor neighbour, Naomi, is one of these newer designer-makers.

Here she's working on a commission – a beaten gold bracelet which will be overlaid with braided silver.

It's strange how even in a tiny backwater like the Jewellery Quarter you can clearly see the tidal pull and push of global economic forces.

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