Meet the jeweller using age-old methods to honour the dead and keep Jewellery Quarter traditions alive

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Jewellers have been creating prized possessions in Birmingham since the 1500s. Experts manipulating metal to create swords, buckles, hilts and more settled in our city, and by the time the Victorian era came, we were the best in Britain at making jewellery.

As well as weaponry and pieces that would demonstrate wealth and success, mourning jewellery had a boom in popularity in the 1800s. Memento mori were items that reminded the wearer of the fragility of life – rings or amulets showing skeletons and skulls. Then there were trinkets designed to keep the memory of lost loved ones close – lockets that could house locks of hair or other precious items that could be a lasting memory of the dead.

As years have passed, memorial jewellery is now, for many, much more understated. While people do still wear jewellery in memory of those who have passed, it’s often much more subtle – an illustration of how grief is much more private in our society here in the 21st century.

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However, for Birmingham jewellery maker Jo Herriotts, the old methods are still the best. At her Jewellery Quarter workshop Hellcat, Jo is using torches, hammers and the workbench to create items that hearken back to the Victorian era.

As well as creating rings, bracelets, necklaces and more with a distinctly goth feel – bones and skulls are a mainstay in her repertoire – the Birmingham School of Jewellery alumna makes memorial jewellery that holds cremated remains and locks of hair, a way for her customers to keep their loved ones close.

Her theory is simple and sentimental – to treat the precious remains with care by housing them in something that was painstakingly crafted by hand to last forever. The items are priced from around £150, which seems reasonable given how long each piece takes to create.

Jo explains: “Each item takes about a day to make. In our wedding range, we have made models which we mould and cast from, but when we make our memorial pieces, we produce each piece entirely by hand. This makes each piece completely unique and shows respect to the remains of loved ones we set in the jewellery.

“Although our designs are modern, using these traditional hand skills is a nod to the heritage of this style of jewellery. I start with sheet metal and use hand tools to form it into the shape to fit the gemstone. Then I solder the ring to form a vessel for the remains, using a blow torch, pliers, hammers and other traditional tools.

“We hand-engrave any words that the customer wants and then set the gem on top carefully to make sure that everything is completely secure.”



The Memento Mori ring by Jo Herriotts at Hellcat
The Memento Mori ring by Jo Herriotts at Hellcat

Jo says that she feels bench skills are becoming a thing of the past, and she’s worried that they may disappear forever from our historic Jewellery Quarter. She says: “We like to honour our roots by using traditional hand skills. These bench skills are a dying art form, with a lack of apprenticeships and young people coming into the trade and the rise of computer aided design, a quicker and more cost effective way to produce items.

“In our time in the JQ we have sadly seen a lot of areas being brought up by investors to demolish old buildings to build housing, so I’m unsure what the future holds for our beloved Quarter. These residential areas have then increased the amount of estate agents and hairdressers setting up in the Jewellery Quarter. I remember when I first started out there wasn’t even a pharmacy here!

“To support our JQ you can buy locally, we love to see the neighbourhood full of people browsing. Hellcat doesn’t have a shop front, but you can visit – just get in touch via the website and make an appointment.”

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