Tools, Skill & Identity: The work of Birmingham's manufacturing jewellers, 1940-1960
In Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, jewellers, silversmiths and members of the allied trades have for centuries clustered skills, materials and demand in this industrial district. The Second World War disrupted these established relationships and routines, as jewellers utilised their tacit knowledge of small metalwork to adapt to production for the Armed Forces. This research project engages with debates in design history, archaeology and anthropology that link skill and identity to investigate the enduring impact of this change in production on jewellers’ concepts of occupational identity in the 1940s and 1950s, when restrictions on gold made much of their work impossible, and even illegal. This research takes a material focus, particularly following gold alloys (carats), to trace the impacts of these restrictions. Trade members instead worked through loopholes to turn to the jewellery ‘black market’ to maintain their skills, an option made available through the trade’s traditions of independent workshop spaces, tool ownership and discretion. Analysis of employee accident records, wages books, job adverts and new oral histories of trade members reinstates craftspeople to a production history that has previously focused only on industry leaders and managers. I carefully engage with these jewellers’ occupational legacies by recognising and utilising my position within the trade to work with the industry’s enduring principle of discretion – a knowing from within that traverses the time between the 1940s and the present. The trade structure thus becomes both methodology and conclusion: jewellers created and sustained their identity through the trade network and their material interactions.