Alabaster & Wilson - Manufacturers of Fine Jewellery, 9-11 Legge Lane

By Freya Samuel

Here is a blog post about our current temporary exhibition - soon to be replaced - pop in for the final chance to get up close to the objects in the display.

For 130 years Alabaster & Wilson produced fine English jewellery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Arthur Alabaster and Thomas Wilson founded the company over 130 years ago in 1887. Three years later, they moved to their state-of-the-art factory in Legge Lane in the historic Jewellery Quarter. Top quality craftsmanship produced fine English jewellery, which established the company in the international jewellery market.

 

From their factory on Legge Lane, they produced delicate enamelled diamond brooches, beautiful diamond and black opal rings, and cufflinks and pendants in gold or platinum, set with precious stones and diamonds. 

 

    

 

Their craftsmen worked to the highest standards combining traditional skills and modern techniques. Each design was initially executed in the form of a master drawing, detailing precisely the shapes, colours, metals and jewels to be included. From these, craftsmen were able to create the final piece. 

Beautifully hand-painted scenes, bespoke coats-of-arms and crests in gold and enamel were a speciality, as were miniature images of people and animals, by artists working from individual client’s photographs. 

From the outset, craftsmen produced a wide range of gold and diamond jewellery designed specifically for their discerning clientele. Combining generations of experience and many years of skill and artistry, the company continued to be run by the third and fourth generations of the Alabaster family, dedicated to maintaining the same high standards of quality and craftsmanship. 

 

    

Here you can see examples of the factory’s plaster jewellery casts. These intricate designs would be carved from paraffin wax, and then embedded in a metal flask. This would then be filled with plaster and left to harden. The flask is then incinerated to burn away any wax, and the remaining mould is filled with a precious metal which creates the shape of the jewellery. 

  

 

Traditional or contemporary, their jewellery was designed to represent special occasions or particular interests, and each piece commissioned was unique to the wearer thanks to the quality and individuality of their designs. The calibre of work even attracted Royal Families from around the world, who came to Alabaster & Wilson for special commissions. 

 

Award winning designer Bernard Howell designed many of the pieces made by Alabaster & Wilson. Howell joined the firm as an office junior in 1925, and apart from serving in the RAF during WWII, stayed with the company all his working life. He became works manager and a Director of the Company, retiring shortly before he died in 1972. 

 

    

 

As you can see in these designs, Howell often worked around a specific theme, in particular he took inspiration from nature; flora and fauna as well as coral and shells. These few drawings demonstrate his design process; sparks of an idea and sketches ranging in degree of intricacy, to the final gold brooch encrusted with diamonds and precious coloured stones. 

 

The building is now grade II listed, and a rare example of a purpose-built jewellery manufactory of the late 1800s. Due to its minimal alteration and retention of original plan and fittings, the building is a significant example of distinctive 19th Century industrial architecture. 

(image courtesy of The Jewellery Quarter Townscape Heritage project)

 

As the generation of Alabaster siblings, alongside the company’s skilled craftsmen, got closer to retirement, it was decided that after 130 years the business would wind down in December 2017.

 

The Alabaster and Wilson Exhibition will be available to see at The Hive until 8th September 2019.

Keen to find out more? On 14th and 21st September 2019, during Birmingham Heritage Week, you will have the opportunity to step inside the Alabaster & Wilson building as it would have been in 1892, through a 3D virtual walk-through created by ScanTech Digital. All this will be available online, to view from the comfort of your own home! Follow the link to find out more. https://birminghamheritageweek.co.uk/21-sept/step-inside-the-1892-alabaster-wilson-2/