Every year more than 10 million articles of precious metal are brought from all over the world to the Birmingham Assay Office, to be tested and hallmarked. It is the largest Assay office in Europe and one of only four remaining the UK.
The Grade II listed Victorian building on Newhall Street is a living, breathing link to Birmingham’s jewellery making heritage. Housed within its walls are many rare skills, expertise and secrets about the jewellery making trade.
The spiritual foundations of the building were first laid down by Matthew Boulton in 1759, when he moved his inherited toy making business into the purpose built Soho Manufactory in Handsworth.
His toys weren’t tin soldiers and hobby horses, but finely crafted pieces of silverware. As his business grew, Boulton became frustrated with having to send his items to the Assay Office in Chester for hallmarking.
In 1773 Boulton successfully campaigned for an Act of Parliament to set up an Assay Office in Birmingham.
He began trading upstairs in the Kings Head on New Street. The unlikely Anchor hallmark, which is synonymous with Birmingham’s jewellery trade, was chosen by Boulton as the Birmingham hallmark after staying at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand during his campaign.
The current Jewellery Quarter home of the Assay Office was originally designed by A.B. Phipson and completed in 1878.
The classical style façade with its Corinthian columns and pilasters has seen many adaptations and extensions over the years, leaving a rather confused appearance today, but these layers of history unintentionally act as a metaphor for passing time and changes within the trade.
The interior of the building is no different. The original entrance hall and staircase are well preserved, filled with original tiling, banisters and glass work. To the front of the building upstairs remains a timber panelled board room, a library and the Assay Office’s private silver collection.
The silver collection contains over 1,400 pieces of Birmingham’s spectacular silverwork, including a piece from every year since the office was founded.
The changing styles tell a story of Birmingham’s society through many years of prosperity to more austere times. In the next room the archive library houses many rare books, including personal books belonging to Boulton himself.
At the rear of the building, the working floor departs from the grandeur of the front, although sedate Victorian elements of the building remain.
The building has been adapted over the years to house state of the art modern equipment such as x-ray machines, necessary to keep up with advances in forgery and to meet the demands of today’s market.
Director Marion Wilson was eager to point out that the 1970’s additions to the building are swiftly becoming inadequate in providing the best working environment.
Sadly the building no longer meets the needs of today’s Assay Office and plans have been drawn up to move to a new location in the Jewellery Quarter.
Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 26 December 2013