A Birmingham Secret
Deakin & Francis’ cufflinks are, as you’d expect from a 230 year old firm, works of art. Riddle looks behind the scenes at the firm’s passion and precision
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Tucked away in Birmingham’s jewellery district lies Deakin & Francis. Much of the firm’s building dates back to the 1770s, and the boardroom – a treasure trove of elegant silverware – was once used by James Watson (a leading industrialist in the 18th century city) and associates as an opium den. Such debauchery and decadence according to Henry Deakin, the company’s managing director, is now strictly confined to the firm’s remarkable cufflinks.
The seventh generation involved in the firm, Henry and his brother James, the creative director, were sagely advised by their father as he handed over to them, “if it doesn’t work for you, don’t work for it.” However, the brothers’ passion and creative flair in the decade since they took over has seen them move away from white labelling for other luxury brands and they made the decision to tell Deakin & Francis’ own remarkable story.
Deakin & Francis have always dealt in sterling silver and other precious metals. For many decades until the 1970s and Bunker Hunt’s speculative attempts to corner the silver market, the company made traditional silver tableware and study and dressing table accessories such as mirrors and cigarette boxes. However, since then they have specialised in cufflinks, signet rings and small silver accessories such as decanter stoppers, although they retain the moulds and ability to make any of those larger antique silver items.
When Henry and James began to tell their own story they initially found the UK to be one of the harder areas to fully convince. The US was exceedingly prepared to buy into and accept, “the world’s oldest family jewellers.” Henry comments that they were very careful with how they built up their own brand, looking to focus on the idea of “England’s best kept secret.” Over time they have found many stores have come to embrace their unique history and today Harrods and Harvey Nichols are amongst their stockists in London whilst Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s in New York sell their links. The firm now has a trade showroom in New York as well alongside agents in Canada and Austria – Henry remarks that they are seeing considerable growth in Europe.
Focusing on funky and stand out design, Henry and James are constantly experimenting to produce unusual working cufflinks. From skulls heads with working jaws to engine turbine cufflinks with working blades, the firm pushes the boundary of what can be miniaturised and worn on your cuffs. Given the artisanship involved, Henry – like many in the luxury world – sadly comments on the lack of apprentices coming through in the UK today. Whilst Deakin & Francis has many highly skilled long term employees, it is a struggle to find new blood. The firm still uses processes such as hand turning which is now a very, very rare skill. As Henry pertinently puts it, “certain skills cannot be allowed to die.” Given many of the presses and turning machines are decades old – and still the best for the job – there is frequent cannibalisation to maintain the critical pieces in full working order.
Descending into the depths of the factory, there are several rooms devoted to die storage – from family crests to regimental emblems Deakin & Francis’ collection is near encyclopaedic. The presses are also found downstairs – the firm does use a couple of automated ones as well as hand powered, with one capable of producing over 300 tonnes of pressure. Henry explains that in order to produce the cleanest cut image possible, the press “squeezes” the symbol rather than merely stamping the ring or link with enormous force. Given the firm is frequently approached to repair and redo old designs, it sometimes takes a little time to scour the storage rooms to find the right die. Old, unused ones are then blast cleaned to ensure no impurities sneak into the cut image. Henry also points out that they always stamp the firm’s signet rings using new metal to ensure there is no porosity – imperfections in the metal which may be under the surface so when engraving they become apparent.
Moving through to another part of the basement, Deakin & Francis have a number of artisans who specialise in the enamelling of cufflinks. They use two different types of enamel: cold enamel, which is a resin and vitreous enamel, which is actual ground glass. As this writer can testify, this is a painstaking role and an exceedingly steady hand is needed. The enamelled link is then fired in a kiln at 750 degrees – the enamelled wares are slowly bought closer to the kilns rather than placed straight in to avoid cracking. After firing, the craftsmen use diamond files to slowly smooth away the excess enamel to allow the silver detailing to come back through – a process done purely by eye and perfected with experience. The resulting link is then polished using volcanic ash before being sent upstairs for buffing.
It is easy to see how both brothers are so passionate about what they do. Being shown round by Henry, it is clear that the factory was their playground growing up and that they immersed themselves (as well as no doubt playing hide and seek) in all parts of the factory. Henry smiles as he says, “you just absorb knowledge by being around the place.” Both Henry and James studied gemmology, Henry at the International Gemmological Institute in Vicenza, Italy and James at the Gemmological Institute of America.
There is a steady stream of bespoke orders coming to the firm: some of these are for cufflinks and some are for larger pieces, allowing certain skills to be kept alive and practised. A lot of work is done in precious metals for overseas clients. Given the complexity of many of Deakin & Francis’ designs, Henry comments that it’s not unusual for there to be up to three years research and development to refine certain fusing and mechanical processes. One design they’ve recently done is using parts of a Bugatti to create Bugatti cufflinks. It was the first time the firm has worked with aluminium and as Henry puts it, “it’s a way of owning just the smallest part of a stunning car.” Along with various US and continental trade shows, Deakin & Francis came second in the innovation category at the 2015 Couture Design awards in Las Vegas and this year won the Professional Jeweller Collection of the Year Awards. In September 2016, they also made it into the Professional Jeweller’s “Hot 100.”
Even with all the sartorial upheaval of the last few years, Henry says that they have found the market for top quality cufflinks to have remained steady ever since the 1970s, “there are no marks for looking scruffy” as he puts it. Links are one of the few traditionally acceptable pieces of jewellery a gentlemen can wear and so they do become an important indicator of taste and personality. Clearly they are still much in demand. In 2015 Deakin & Francis sold just over 28,000 sets and the firm at any one time keeps around 35,000 pairs in stock to enable swift resupply to their wholesale customers. Despite launching a new website earlier in 2016, online sales make up only approximately 10 per cent of the company’s turnover. Henry and James are justifiably proud that their rate of return via online sales is less than one per cent – testament to the quality and desirability of their remarkable wares.
Celebrating 230 years, Deakin & Francis continues to thrive under its own name and create innovative and stylish links. Whether you are looking for a discreet and understated gift or to splurge on something a trifle more outrageous for your cuffs, this august and vibrant firm with over two centuries of expertise behind them is worth checking out.
We now stock Deakin & Francis items on our Shop.
Enquiries: Deakin & Francis, 19 – 21 Piccadilly Arcade, St James’s. London SW1Y 6NH / 01212 367751 / http://deakinandfrancis.co.uk/