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Paved with gold

Rachel Lichtenstein grew up inside the secret jewellery world of Hatton Garden

Over the years my husband, grandfather, uncles, aunts and parents have all worked in London’s jewellery and diamond quarter, Hatton Garden. My memories of the place go back to childhood, when I would accompany my father there on buying trips, searching for stock to sell at his antiques stall in Portobello Market.

I remember following him through narrow entrances near to the shops, up dark stairwells to tiny rooms, to meet with one of the dealers in second-hand goods. Security was tight. Entrance to these rooms was often via three separate steel doors that had to be locked before the next could be opened. Inside, I would sit on a chair in the corner and wait while my father talked business before examining the items.

There was ritual in this process. Heavy black-velvet-lined cases would be lifted out of large, green, metal safes, and placed on a desk, lit by an overhead light. My father would slip his hand into the pocket of his sheepskin coat and pull out his ten-power jeweller’s loupe, which he’d hold against one eye by screwing up the side of his face. Then, slowly, he would pick up each diamond ring, Victorian cameo brooch, ruby pendant and inspect them at length, tutting a little if he noticed an imperfection. After much haggling, a price would be agreed and the deal sealed with a handshake and the Yiddish words mazel und broche before goods were exchanged for cash. This is the way business has taken place in Hatton Garden for over a century. It is a secret, private world that operates according to a set of unspoken internal laws: never screw a partner; and once a deal is done it must be adhered to.

In the mid-1980s, when the antiques business was no longer providing a viable income for my father, he began working full time in Hatton Garden, managing the shop of a childhood friend. I spent my summers helping out as a runner; collecting jobs for customers from the workshops around the area. While waiting, I would stand and watch elderly men at work hunched over wooden jewellery benches in concentration; welding bands of platinum together with miniature tools, inserting tiny stones into clawed mounts, cutting sapphires into shape with diamond-tipped saws.

The men in the workshops told me stories about the master craftsmen who once worked in Hatton Garden. “We had one old Jewish chap I used to sit next to, called Lapidus,” said Dave Harris, a former diamond-cutter, “who had been born in Russia in about 1860. He ran away from home and got apprenticed in Germany, earning nothing. He told me he used to lodge in a room with just a bed and a chair and live on bread and water. In the 1900s he moved to Paris and became a master jeweller and in the 1920s he moved to England. He was in his late seventies when he came to us. He worked piecework, so his wages never came to more than three pounds a week, but he made the most exquisite pieces of jewellery I’d ever seen, which often took him up to three months to make. The most beautiful thing I saw him produce was a rose-shaped diamond brooch, set in 18-carat gold, with enamelled petals, covered in precious stones and diamonds, commissioned by a Russian princess.”

In those days every pearl that ended up in a British jewellery shop, every precious stone, every diamond, rough or cut, came through Hatton Garden. Today the majority of the jewellery sold in the street is either cast or imported. A few of the master craftsmen remain but when they die, their knowledge will be lost.

Although Hatton Garden is no longer the centre of the world jewellery market, it remains a major player and still houses the largest cluster of jewellery-based businesses in the UK, with over 300 separate companies in the area and nearly 60 shops in the street itself. Another network of hidden spaces exists above and below: guarded underground vaults filled with wholesale stores of gold and silver, workshops where specialist items are made to order, rooms where precious-gem dealers operate and Hasidic diamond merchants examine glittering stones.

Hatton Garden is a self-contained place. Everything the business needs can be found within a square mile: from the London Diamond Bourse, to the gold bullion dealers, to the suppliers of precious metals, stones, gems and jewels, to the shops that sell the finished products. The majority of people who work there, in all areas of the business, are still Jewish.

Orthodox Jews trade happily with assimilated secular Jews like my father. There are Jews from Israel, Iran, America, Holland, Britain and other countries, who have links to an international network of jewellery markets in Antwerp, Tel Aviv, New York and the Far East.

Despite the global nature of the street, there is a village atmosphere. Everyone knows each other, gossip is rife and much like in the former eastern European shtetls, there are plenty of schlemiels, menschen and other intriguing Jewish characters. One of these is Isadore Mitziman, known with affection to all as Mitzy. For over half a century he regularly made weekly rounds to the shops and suppliers in the street, dropping off his much-sought-after “specials”: French court wedding rings.
Mitzy’s life story was shrouded in mystery. He always dressed like a tramp but there were rumours he owned millions and lived with a young wife in a large house in Essex. He’d limp into the shops, dragging one large foot behind the other and sit down with a sigh, wiping his bald head with a stained handkerchief. Sometimes he would come into the back of my parents’ shop for a cup of tea and tell stories about his time as a flight engineer, assigned to Lancaster bombers during the Second World War.

He retired and no one had seen him for a long time, when I happened to bump into him in 2004 in Brick Lane, arguing with a couple of homeless-looking men outside the bagel bakery. He had a salt-beef sandwich in one hand and a coffee in the other. As I approached, I realised his shouts were in Yiddish. He shook my hand vigorously and I told him about the book on Brick Lane I was writing and he smiled. “I grew up here,” he said, in his lisping Yiddishe accent.

He began to talk about Hatton Garden. He told me that the area floats above a labyrinthine network of subterranean spaces: abandoned railway platforms, decommissioned government bunkers, and rivers. “It amazes me the entire place doesn’t cave in,” he said. “With the weight of gold and heavy metal above and all those ancient, watery passageways honeycombing the ground underneath.” He told me stories about chain gangs marching from Hatton Garden to an underground river near Fleet Street, before travelling to Australia. He spoke of the Diamond Club in the street being used by medical students from Barts for dissecting dead bodies. He recounted stories of highwaymen and thefts. “Did you know,” he said, grabbing my arm tightly, “that Hatton Garden was once the site of a medieval palace, surrounded by vast gardens, with fountains, vineyards and orchards?” Before Mitzy had a chance to tell me more, one of his friends shouted something to him in Yiddish and with a stamp of his foot he was back into the throng, arms akimbo.

Rachel Lichtenstein’s “Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden” is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?