Fool's gold and jewellers' gems

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Pam Cooley unlocks the doors of a Victorian workshop where you can see how the craftsmen turned precious stone into treasured jewellery.

You can buy a bar of bullion for 75p in the museum shop at the Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre in Birmingham. It's not real gold, although some of the children visiting the centre think it might be before they realise it is a chocolate bar.

Any shopping comes at the end of a visit after key stage 2 pupils have seen a video on the history of jewellery, wall displays on the development of the industry in Birmingham, peered into the reconstruction of a Victorian jeweller's workshop and learned about hallmarks. For this part of the visit, which is not accompanied by a museum guide, worksheets are provided (teachers get notes with the answers).

Joined by one of the centre's excellent guides, children will have explored the factory office and manufacturing areas, watched a jeweller at work and enjoyed imaginative activities in the education room. All this, and more, has earned the Discovery Centre a Sandford Award for its educational work.

The Discovery Centre has an unusual history. Fifteen years ago, unable to find a buyer for the family business founded by their fathers in 1899, Miss Olive, Mr Tom and Mr Eric, locked the doors of the Smith and Pepper Jewellery Workshop where they had worked all their lives. They left the factory exactly as it was on the last day of production, right down to the dregs of tea in the workers' mugs and half-empty pots of Marmite.

Opened five years ago, the centre is based around the original factory office and workshop. Space is limited and 30 children is the ideal number for a school visit. Split into groups of 10, with a teacher or school helper who must stay with them throughout the visit, these small groups rotate through the activity areas, spending about half-an-hour on each stage. Larger groups on a day visit may divide to explore the square mile of the old Jewellery Quarter or visit other city museums with their teachers, or with one of Birmingham's Blue Badge guides, not connected with the centre. After lunch, the groups change over.

In the factory office, the children guess the function of the Comptometer and compare the old equipment with the modern computers and fax machines. Machines stand idle but when the guide starts one up it brings to life how it must have been for nearly 100 years, when the air was filled with noise, smoke and fumes.

There is a lot to take in but, as guide Helen George says, "We try to keep it light, holding the children's interest by encouraging them to ask questions and telling them stories. For instance, we tell them how people would try to steal gold by swallowing it or letting it fall into their trouser turn-ups."

They meet Mick, a jeweller who started work with Smith and Pepper as an errand boy, who intrigues the children by demonstrating how jewellers, doing repetitive work, developed a technique of non-stop "circular breathing" through a blow pipe, to mix gas and air and make a hot blue soldering flame. He also demonstrates, and lets them try, a one-handed "bow drill" - the origins of which go back more than 2,000 years, and the drill was used until the 1950s to pierce pearls.

In the education room the children fill in an old-fashioned, obsequiously polite "calling letter", presenting themselves to customers. Then drawing or using inked stamps of Smith and Pepper jewellery designs, they make their own catalogues. Ms George explains: "It's very popular. We talk them through it, getting them to write their own descriptions of the pieces and invent prices, bringing in the old shillings and pence."

Later, seated at proper tables, the children are helped to punch a hole in the brass medallions they have seen stamped out in the factory before attaching them with a jump ring to a chain. "They love the medallions to bits," says Ms George, "and they all go away with a souvenir."

Pupils with special needs particularly enjoy the hands-on activities. Teachers are asked to let the staff know in advance if wheelchair access to the site is required.

At one end of the education area, there is a workshop for a visiting jeweller in residence, funded by West Midlands Arts Association. This year, for the first time, week-long sessions are being arranged during term time for primary and secondary pupils.

The main emphasis of a primary school visit is on key stage 2 Victorian and local history, which can be geared by teachers to personal and social skills, problem solving and numeracy. Museum curator Chris Rice, newly appointed last year, and his assistant, jeweller Louise Evans, are busy with plans to extend the centre's potential for technology, science and design projects. Some technology sessions are already held and the teachers' pack has details of all the machines and their functions.

However, this spring a day has been arranged for some teachers to discuss primary technology options. Mr Rice also intends to include an appraisal sheet in the information sent to teachers, hoping they will tell him how best the centre might support work throughout the curriculum.

During National Science week, beginning March 15, the centre will be mounting what Mr Rice describes as a "fairly big hands-on gems and gemmology project".

"This is a new departure for us as Smith and Pepper were gold rather than gem jewellery manufacturers. As well as demonstrations of lapidary work there will be a sort of Jurassic Park theme, looking through microscopes at things like insects trapped in amber," he says.

The Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre is at 7579 Vyse Street, Hockley Birmingham, Bl8 6HA. Tel: 0121 554 3598. Admission Pounds 1.35 per pupil for school parties. Teachers and adult helpers free; booking essential; and teachers get a free visit beforehand

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