Until now, all I knew about Hatton Garden was that it is the traditional centre for diamond cutters and sellers somewhere near Holborn. It is also, on a smaller scale, akin to New York’s midtown diamond district. If you haven’t been there, you might remember the scene in the film Marathon Man where Laurence Olivier, playing the ex-Nazi Christian Szell, is recognised in the bustling streets by the Jewish diamond traders.
Hatton Garden isn’t anything like so obvious, its treasures are hidden away and discreet. Nevertheless, the old families are reportedly still behind the scenes, with their passion for the industry undimmed. Sadly, rising rents and new development are threatening the traditional nature of the area. Hatton Garden faces trendification – inevitable given that it sits between Farringdon, Clerkenwell and High Holborn.
As I sauntered down Hatton Garden, I was struck by how unflamboyant it is given the stock in trade – compared to say, Covent Garden or New Bond Street. But this is an area of specialisation, of the cutting, polishing and setting of diamonds, the centre of independent jewellery retailers in Britain. It is also associated with the turbulent history of Europe over hundreds of years.
The diamond industry developed here in the 17th Century when Portuguese Jews settled because of persecution. At the same time, diamonds began to flood in from India and even Brazil as European trade spread across the globe.
As shopping experiences go, it is a bit strange – unless you are there for a reason. It is not one of those streets you would randomly wander in search of you don’t know what yet, which is the great modern retail adventure – known delightfully in Paris as being a flaneur. But now I have been a few times, I would say, ‘Go!’ It is amazing to see so many jewellery shops side by side. What you want is there – you just don’t know it yet.
The name Hatton was that of a favourite of Elizabeth I – Christopher Hatton. The besotted Queen gave him the area as a present. Mary Queen of Scots infuriated them both by apparently encouraging the rumour the two were an item. Hatton had his revenge – as one of the Judges at her trial, he signed her execution warrant. An early business angel, he invested in Francis Drake’s voyages. His ship, the Golden Hind, is named after Hatton’s coat of arms.
But I am here for diamonds – those hard earthly stars of reflecting light, and what they mean to us. There is obviously their value as heirlooms, perhaps worth more than their weight in memories to some. But their primary importance is as the most compact monetary unit that you can sneak across borders. Because of this, they have saved the lives of countless refugees.
This eternal, ancient pure form of carbon is forged through the heat of volcanic pipes for millions of years. Then, from all over the world, the dusky rough stones arrive and are sorted into 16,000 categories of shape size and colour before being cut into types; Standard, Brilliant, Baguette, Princess, Radiant, and Cushion before being sorted and sold on to sight holders who show them to the jewellers.
By the time they reach Hatton Garden they have been through so many hands it makes one almost as dizzy, like the fact that they are perfect in four directions – which is to say their cleavage (!) is 111, their Crystal Habit is Octahedral, their Lustre is Adamantine as is their Polish lustre, and yet despite all these amazing qualities they can still be Singly Refractive. I don’t pretend to understand much of what that means, but the language is beautiful.
It is difficult to know which shop to enter unless you have already done your homework. All of them will have engagement rings, and all of their work is to the highest possible standard due membership of the Diamond Bourse and Club at 100 Hatton Garden. The World Federation of Diamond Bourses was set up in 1947 to uphold a rigorous code of ethics and best business practice.
There are dozens of other shops in the street, all waiting to be explored. Don’t be daunted by the secret and unobvious nature of the area, for buying the best quality jewelry you could not do better.…