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Museum of the Jewelry Quarter in Birmingham glitters as Victorian ghost factory

The bracelets of the former Smith and Pepper Company still glitter at the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter.
Betsa Marsh

Surrounded by their vintage machinery, hand tools and work stations, the ghosts of jewelers past seem almost palpable at Museum of the Jewelry Quarter in Birmingham, England.

The Smith and Pepper Company specialized in bangles and bracelets from 1899 until the Smith family members locked the door for the last time in 1981. Unable to sell the business during a recession, they took the gold and left behind everything else: ledgers in the safe, metal dies on the shelves, receipts on the hook.

They even left jars of Marmite and homemade damson plum jam, which have taken on lives of their own in the years since.

Becoming the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter

In 1992, Birmingham city council approached the Smiths about buying the old red brick houses and the factory that their family built in the backyard. After stabilizing the buildings and safety-rigging the machinery, the city opened The Museum of the Jewelry Quarter in 1992. Admission is £5, about $8.50.

Today, guides with jewelers’ backgrounds take groups through the time-capsule factory, demonstrating the Archimedes bow drill to cut a hole in metal and working a giant press to stamp out a metal medallion. Guides turn on the belt-driven lathes to give visitors a sense of the noise there must have been in this small space.

Tea time: Sugar or cyanide?

And don’t forget the tea break. One long-time employee did the electroplating, using cyanide for the process. She also organized the tea tray each day. Cyanide and sugar look nearly identical, but there are no reports of any mix-ups.

Museum of the Jewelry Quarter captures recent history

Birmingham has long been famous as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, a city that mushroomed on the strength of its workforce, factories and canals.

Precious metals have been worked in Birmingham since the 1300s, but the fashion for fancy buttons and shoe buckles exploded when extravagant King Charles Il returned from exile in France in 1660 and restored the monarchy in Britain.

The Jewelry Quarter grew throughout the centuries, with hundreds of small manufacturers and artisans relying upon each other in the tight confines of the Quarter. In the 20th century, shops began to open to the public.

Today, the Jewelry Quarter is the largest in Europe, with more than 1,500 businesses, a quarter of which are still active in the jewelry trade. The Quarter also has the world’s busiest Assay Office, which hallmarks more than 13 million items each year.

Glittering attractions near the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter

Don’t miss:

St. Paul’s Square, the last remaining Georgian square in Birmingham and one of the few in Britain. St. Paul’s, the Jewelers’ Church, commands the center of the tree-lined square, developed in the 1770s.

The Pen Museum, celebrating Joseph Gillott’s invention of the machine-made steel nib. Birmingham was the center of pen manufacturing for more than a century.

The Jewelry Quarter Dark Trail, featuring two historic cemeteries. Key Hill, opened in 1836, has gardens and catacombs. Warstone Lane Cemetery, from 1848, is a Gothic design with catacombs, too.

The Newman Coffin Works in Fleet Street will be refurbished as a museum, scheduled to open in summer 2014. The company made some of the world’s finest coffin furniture, fittings, linings and shrouds during its long tenure, from 1894 to 1999. Their fittings have adorned the coffins of Sir Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales.

When you go

The Museum of the Jewelry Quarter is located at 75-79 Vyse St. The Jewelry Quarter Information Center is at 120 Vyse St.

Visit Birmingham has more information on the Quarter and the city. More information on Britain.