PJ BOOK CLUB: The Diamond Street

Rachel Lichtenstein’s historical, unseen side of Hatton Garden.

With a bustling multicultural and multi-faith community and a renewed focus on traditional craftsmanship, Rachel Lichtenstein discusses how London’s Jewellery Hub Hatton Garden has come full circle in her book Diamond Street, The Hidden World of Hatton Garden.

Tall, standing cabinets with rocks, cut into slices, exhibited like porcelain plates, sit beside fossils and artefacts made from very rare materials such as Blue John and onyx.

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Situated on the floor, near the entrance, is a gigantic black rock, which has been sliced in half to reveal a profusion of luminous-violet amethyst crystals inside. Holts Lapidary Showroom on Hatton Garden looks more like a gallery in the Natural History Museum than just another jewellery shop on the street.

Mr Holt senior, a refugee from Vienna, opened his first shop in 1948 in the former Gamages building, specialising in rocks and precious gems. The art of lapidary, popular in Victorian times, had nearly disappeared in London by then. He learned how to cut the rocks himself – he even built his own machinery from used eyeglass lenses because there was nothing available to buy then. "You can historically trace the resurrection of stonecutting in this country to my father," said his son, Jason, a smart young former lawyer, who is now co-director of the business. "Lapidary is a very niche area, a real art form, we are the last major stonecutters in the UK now, most of the business has gone overseas."

As we walked around the workshop, talking to various different craftspeople, Jason told me when he started in the business 10 years ago he noticed most of the old-fashioned apprenticeships had died out and that the majority of quality handcrafted jewellery was being made in the Far East. A DTI report in 1999 stated that within a decade, unless something was done, traditional jewellery manufacturing skills would vanish from the UK. These statistics inspired Jason to establish an academy of jewellery; a not-for-profit organisation providing hands-on training by industry experts for young people wanting to learn the trade. The school started in the Holts basement and has expanded into a large warehouse building just off Hatton Garden, offering over 60 different courses, covering all aspects of the trade, to over 1,000 students a year.

The academy seemed to be embracing many of the early values of the master craftsmen who first came to Hatton Garden and helped establish the jewellery trade there; focusing on training, attention to craft and learning the skills of setting, mounting, polishing and designing, but reinterpreting them in a modern way.

I had recently noticed a couple of large arcades near the Clerkenwell end of the street, which also seemed to hark back in some ways to the very early days of Hatton Garden as a jewellery quarter, with people trading openly across counters, just like they used to in the streets and the kosher cafés before the First World War.

The big difference is these new jewellery emporiums are not for the trade only. The general public are encouraged to go there to barter and haggle like dealers. Since the credit crunch more of these places are opening up in the Garden. The price for scrap gold is currently comparatively much higher than it was even back in the gold rush of the 1970s. Empty shops have been converted into Manhattan-style jewellery exchanges filled with multiple small market-style units, where traders from across the globe exchange scrap gold for cash, as well as buying and selling antique and modern jewellery, watches, gold coins, loose diamonds, charm bracelets, imported goods, anything they can make a return on.

A cacophony of languages confronts you when you enter these places: Chinese, Yiddish, Urdu, Hebrew, Tamil – with dealers busily striking deals and encouraging potential punters over to their counters: "Please, miss, you want to sell gold, instant cash for your pre-owned jewellery, best price here." The pressurised banter in these places reminded me of walking around the Arab market in Jerusalem’s Old City. Customers are hassled and cajoled and haggling is an expected part of the exchange. An entirely different experience to the very old-fashioned British-style customer service offered in the jewellery shops on the street.

Many of Hatton Garden’s small dealers who used to operate behind closed doors have seized the opportunity and rented a counter in one of these open arcades. Pakistani, Burmese, Indian and Sri Lankan traders have come to London specially to work there, subletting individual booths, specialising in imported goods from their homelands. In the front of one of these emporiums, a row of Sri Lankan dealers sell sapphire stones and jewellery, paying some of the highest rents in the street to have the prime position near to the door, where they trade from aggressively, trying to entice customers over to their counters the minute they enter the building.

In the same emporium, which used to house a Barclays Bank and the London Diamond Bourse, a Chinese-run booth specialises in imperial jade jewellery and freshwater pearls. Near to them an Orthodox bewigged woman sells diamonds. Behind her an Israeli man has a unit filled with gold and silver goods. Many newcomers to the street have also started trading there – the former rules of the Garden do not apply. All the dealers in the arcades have scales for weighing out scrap jewellery and gold. They buy directly off the public and then take the goods down the road to bullion refiners like Pressmans to be melted down.

Working in such close proximity it is a hard environment to stand out in. Good ideas get stolen, dealers need to be selling cheaper than their neighbours to survive. The intensely competitive atmosphere and market-style layout creates its own kind of energy, a world away from the gentle vibe in the rest of the shops on the street.

I spent some time speaking with an elderly Jewish man and his daughter, who have worked in the Garden for decades and began renting a booth in one of the arcades a few years ago. He enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, which reminded him of similar places in New York, Turkey and Tel Aviv. Surrounding his counter were a number of photographs of couples who had bought their engagement rings from him. "I like to capture this official moment in people’s lives, the exact point in time when their world changes for ever. Look at the colour in her cheeks," he said, pointing to a picture of a young woman in a red top, smiling broadly. "We have met so many different personalities, from bank managers to very poor people wanting to get married, who come in here with their money saved up in pound coins to buy a ring. I’ve heard lots of interesting stories."

We spoke about the international group of people working in these arcades and he told me they all get on well enough. "Many of the Asian people renting booths working here are very religious like us. Right now it is Ramadan so we commiserate with them about not being able to eat, just like they commiserate with us when it is Yom Kippur." Although there is a very multicultural mix of cultures in these large indoor markets, the majority are still Jewish. On the lower-ground floor of the largest emporium on the street, a Keddassia dairy vegetarian sandwich bar has recently opened, the only restaurant on the street to offer kosher food. There is also a vending machine selling kosher snacks.

He told me there is a special room set aside downstairs for the Orthodox Jewish traders to pray in and another area in the building where religious Muslim dealers lay out their prayer mats throughout the day. A few minutes later a young man, wearing a suit and a large black hat, came up to him and asked, "Are you davening, Mincha? We need to make up a minyan." This happens every day, someone will go around the arcade looking for the required quorum of 10 Jewish adults needed for afternoon prayers.

Another recent feature downstairs in this building are tables and chairs, which have been set out in the centre of the room for people to broker deals and openly trade stones and goods from, much like the trading floor I had seen at the Diamond Bourse. It was as if that building, which once housed an earlier version of the Bourse on the first floor, had revolved full circle – Hatton Garden turned inside out.

This feature was taken from the January issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.



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