Elkington & Co. Bowl, 1901-1902

Birmingham silver – beauty and grace in small shapes

Matthew Boulton. Tureen, 1811
Matthew Boulton. Tureen, 1811

Birmingham silver takes pride of place in the expositions of museums and is highly valued by collectors of antiques. The city is often called the silver capital of Great Britain, as it was here that many workshops were concentrated, supplying all of Europe with dishes and elegant trinkets.

Birmingham silver was bought by members of the royal families and nobles, the Russian imperial court was the regular customers of the British silversmiths. Birmingham’s jewelers were renowned for their fine and intricate small-form pieces.

Henry Matthews firm. Miniature coronation throne. 1901-1902
Henry Matthews firm. Miniature coronation throne. 1901-1902

History of silver making in Birmingham

Birmingham silver took a long time to become famous. Workshops in the city have been operating since the 15th century, but the local jewelry business reached its true heyday under Charles II (Charles II). The monarch spent several years in France, where he was forced to flee in connection with the coming to power of Oliver Cromwell.

At the court of the French king, dresses with an abundance of elaborate buttons, buckles and precious stones sewn onto the fabric were in great fashion. Thanks to Karl, the Parisian style became popular among the British nobility, who filled up workshops with orders for silver accessories.

Birmingham silver began to be in great demand, since city jewelers from the middle of the 17th century specialized in the manufacture of small items: buttons, writing instruments, aroma holders, bottles and toothpicks. At the time, Matthew Boulton, the owner of the family’s toy business, took over a lot in Birmingham. A hereditary jeweler, already at the age of seventeen, invented such an original method of inlaid enamel in buckles that the products could be secretly exported to France, and then imported under the guise of the latest Parisian development.

Boulton was well aware that Birmingham could never fully develop trade ties while the Assay Office was in London. Using his connections in parliament, he lobbied for a law that gave Birmingham and Sheffield the right to independently brand gold and silver. The origin of the images on the hallmarks is associated with the name of the London Crown and Anchor Hotel, where representatives of both cities stayed during the discussion of the law. The symbols seemed equally good, so the jewelers tossed a coin. Birmingham got the anchor, and Sheffield got the crown (later the rose).

Elkington & Co. Jug and glasses, 1870
Elkington & Co. Jug and glasses, 1870

The Assay Office of Birmingham was founded in 1773.

Initially, the institution occupied three rooms in the Royal Head Hotel, and the staff consisted of four people. The inspectors checked the purity of the silver and confirmed the product’s compliance with the sterling standard with a stamp. The assayers’ first client was Matthew Boulton himself.

Four stamps were applied to Birmingham silver:

  • standard (92.75% pure silver) – a lion figurine turned to the left;
  • the symbol of the city is an anchor;
  • date in the form of a letter of the alphabet;
  • workshop sign.

The ability to inspect silver on the spot freed jewelers from the cost of long travel, during which a consignment could be stolen, damaged or copied. The change in legislation served as an incentive for the development of jewelry production in Birmingham. In subsequent years, new enterprises appeared in the city, many of which gained worldwide fame.

Birmingham silver, Elkington & Co. Bowl, 1901-1902
Elkington & Co. Bowl, 1901-1902

Silversmiths of Birmingham

Nathaniel Mills Sr. registered his mark in 1803. The jeweler was the first to make silver souvenirs with British landmarks. He placed images on cigarette cases, business card holders and caskets.

The knick-knacks were eagerly bought by tourists, which helped the master to become famous outside the UK. The best products of the Mills manufactory appeared after 1830, when the craftsmen mastered the casting, stamping and machining of silver.

Elkington & Co succeeded in collaborating with Benjamin Schlick, a Danish mechanic and architect who moved to England in the mid-19th century.

Birmingham silver, Elkington & Co. Benjamin Schlick's project. Cup and saucer, 1850s
Elkington & Co. Benjamin Schlick’s project. Cup and saucer, 1850s

The master created designs and castings for jewelers based on antiquity and the Renaissance. There is information that the architect was responsible for the reception of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I, who visited the enterprise in 1844. Later Schlick presented several items as a gift to Princess Maria Alexandrovna.

Henry Matthews incorporated his company in 1894. The firm was engaged in the manufacture of small items with detailed finishes. The manufactory produced toys and accessories: hat pins, hair brushes, cigarette cases, and eyeglass frames. The enterprise ceased operations in 1930.

Birmingham Silver. Brand of Birmingham
Birmingham Silver. Brand of Birmingham

Birmingham silver remains popular all over the world today. There is a jewelers’ quarter in the city, where craftsmen prefer silver to other precious metals. Here tourists can buy original jewelry and souvenirs that are sold at an affordable price. A permanent exhibition of antique silver is organized in the city museum of jewelry art.