Behind The Counters At Hatton Garden, London's World-Famous Diamond District

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 28 months ago
Behind The Counters At Hatton Garden, London's World-Famous Diamond District
Image: Shutterstock

"Guess the highest price we've ever paid for a carpet!"

Gary Williams dares us, white-hot flames flickering from a receptacle of molten metal behind him.

We're standing inside the subterranean workshop of Presman Mastermelt, a scrap metal dealers where Gary is general manager. It's the first stop in our behind-the-scenes tour of the Hatton Garden area, the handful of streets in Holborn that have been at the heart of London's jewellery trade for over a century. Guarded by security, and hidden beneath a labyrinth of locked doors and narrow staircases, it feels a million miles away from the glittering window displays of engagement rings and diamond-encrusted watches that flank the street above us.

Things are a bit more flashy on street level. Pictured: A Jeweller's gold Ferrari

We oblige Gary with guesses ranging from a modest £5000 to £25,000, at which point he tells us to stop being silly. Still, the actual figure of £13,000 is not to be sniffed at, considering the carpet in question is a second-hand one that came into the workshop covered in dirt.

Naturally, this wasn't just any old dusty rug. It had belonged to a jeweller's workshop, where it spent years absorbing 'lemel', the small shavings of precious metal left over from filing pieces of jewellery. By the time it arrived at Presman Mastermelt, it had become an unlikely treasure trove of gold, silver, and platinum. The team incinerated the carpet in their furnace, processed the cremated remains and tested the recovered metal inside its laboratory to determine its value — resulting in Gary's team paying that £13k for it.

A sample of metal, headed to the lab

"It's a surprise every time we do it", Gary remarks, showing us a glass dropper that's used to extract metal samples. Like the carpet, much of the scrap Presman Mastermelt purchases come from jewellers up and down the country.

The company also reclaims platinum from old aeroplane engines, palladium from the pharmaceutical industry, and even gold teeth. However — much to the relief of the dentophobics amongst us — we've visited on a quiet morning, and spy only a mesh of industrial metal that resembles cheap tinsel waiting to be processed.

Once we've sized up all the equipment, it's time to see some actual smelting in action. About a cupful of lemel — alongside borax and sodium nitrate to dissolve impurities — is exposed to 1500°C heat until it is fully melted. A sample is then collected for testing and the melt is poured into a conical mould. After the mixture cools and solidifies, it's removed from the mould and smashed to separate the borax 'slag' at the top of the cast, from the precious metal at the bottom.

Because it's impossible to tell exactly how much a load of scrap is worth just by looking at, a dealer like Presman Mastermelt must maintain an impeccable reputation. The slogan, "trusted since 1945" is emblazoned on its website, and the homepage details the company's post-war origins, purchasing scrap from local jewellers back when trade was predominantly wholesale. This harkening back to the Hatton Garden of yore becomes a recurring theme throughout our tour.

A bit of history

The Hatton Garden jewellery trade started to grow in the early 1800s, with business booming by the end of the century. By then, around 90% of the world's rough diamond production and distribution was controlled by a single mining company, De Beers. In 1889 De Beers — co-founded by British-born businessman and imperialist Cecil Rhodes in the wake of the South African diamond rush — cut a deal to sell its gems exclusively through a syndicate of ten Hatton Garden merchants.

And so, over half a century before the first retail jewellery shops moved in, Hatton Garden's status as London's diamond district was set in stone. Despite rising rents putting considerable strain on some local businesses, it's an identity that endures in Hatton Garden to this day. This bustling clutch of streets, littered with signs advertising 'cash for gold' may lack the understated elegance exhibited by many high-end shopping hubs, but the quarter's rich heritage gives the jewellers that operate here their unique sparkle.

Hatton Garden today - note the 'to let' signs in the background

"Hatton Garden is still synonymous with engagement rings," Sam Nobes, brand director at Holt Gems tells us on the next stop of our tour. This jewellery business was founded by pre-war Jewish refugee Robert Holt in 1948 and has occupied 98 Hatton Garden ever since, remaining in the Holt family to this day.

"The craft is what we sell," Sam explains. This idea of high artisanship passed down through the generations is a clear USP of this self-proclaimed heritage brand, which still creates all of its pieces in-house. Yet the team at Holt Gems is also keenly aware of the need to evolve in order to stay relevant.

An emerald ring in the Holt Gems workshop

Adapting to a changing market

Unlike many other Hatton Garden jewellers, Holt Gems has cultivated a robust digital presence, and it's one that reflects changing consumer priorities — from think pieces on millennial women buying their own engagement rings to landing pages dedicated to lab-grown diamonds. That latter example speaks to a growing appetite for ethical (or, at least, less unethical) spending; lab-grown gems are anatomically identical to mined ones but are far more environmentally sustainable. Opting for one also supports a supply chain that is typically a lot less murky than those of mined diamonds.

Holt Gems and its sister shops, Hearts of London and Queensmith — - the latter of which markets itself as LGBT-friendly, another example of an industry steeped in tradition adapting to social change — sells both kinds. Sam stresses that all three premises source their mined diamonds per the Kimberley Process, a UN certification scheme that claims to prevent 98.8% of blood diamond trade, and diplomatically frames the choice as one of personal taste: "the wonders of nature versus the wonders of science".

Holt Gems store exterior

An increased focus on ethics isn't the only consumer trend emerging in Hatton Garden. Holt Gems' customers expect a bespoke shopping experience; they want to know the narrative behind the piece that has been crafted just for them.

The newly-refurbished showroom sets the stage for  — as Sam puts it — this "piece of retail theatre", with its undulating marble counters and rotating displays that show off artfully arranged jewellery. Rings set with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies slowly spin inside their gleaming glass carousel: a suitably swish backdrop for goods that come with an average £6,000 price tag.

Work in progress at Holt Gems

Beyond the counters, something else catches our eye. It's a workstation, separated from the shop floor by a window to give customers a tantalising behind-the-scenes glimpse of their creative process. Inside, a pair of goldsmiths are inspecting their work using microscopes for maximum precision, one of the quality control procedures deployed at every stage of production.

Elsewhere, we see lasers that are used to resize jewellery and the 3D printed wax models that allow ultra-discerning clients to get a real feel for their rings before committing to their final design. Time-honoured tradition may be integral to Hatton Garden's identity, but new technology also has a role to play in conveying this centuries-spanning narrative of fine craftsmanship — and inviting customers to play an active part in it, too.

Inside the workshop at Hearts of London

Ultimately, it's this narrative that, in an oversaturated industry, give these jewellers their edge. Online marketplaces may not have to consider overheads like eye-watering Holborn rents, but Hatton Garden's identity lends itself well to the kind of experiential shopping that is so often hailed as the future of retail.

As social anthropologist Yasmin Hales, who joined us for the tour, puts it "in Hatton Garden, you've got a real sense of community from conception to execution". It's a corner of London characterised by the transmission of tradition over the generations which, in a world of fast fashion where high street stalwarts are disappearing at an alarming rate, is refreshing to see... even if most of the jewellery is out of our price range.

Last Updated 02 October 2021