“If it is so that we go through the world shedding phantom semblance’s of ourselves to hover about those places we have lived intensely, then Hatton Garden should surely be full of illustrious shadows.” The Romance of Hatton Garden (by H. Marryat and James Cornish, 1930)
Over the years my grandfather, uncles, parents and husband have all worked in 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 antique stall in Portobello Market. I remember following him through narrow entrances near to the shop-fronts, up dark stairwells to tiny stuffy rooms on the floors above, to meet with one of the many dealers in second-hand goods who operated in the area. Security was tight. Entrance to these rooms was often via three separate steel doors, each of which had to be shut before the next could be opened. Once inside I would sit on a chair in the corner, often nervously eyeing a large sleeping dog under a desk, and wait whilst my father talked business before examining the items he’d come to see. There was ritual in this process. Heavy, black, velvet-lined cases would be ceremoniously lifted out of the cool depths of large green metal safes, before being placed on to a desk, lit by a bright overhead light. Then my father would slip his hand into the pocket of his sheepskin coat, and pull out his tenpower jeweller’s loupe, which he would hold expertly against one eye by tightly screwing up one side of his face. Then, slowly, he would pick up each diamond ring, Victorian cameo brooch, ruby pendant or other piece of antique jewellery and inspect them at great length under the white light, sometimes tutting a little if he noticed an imperfection. After much haggling back and forth a price would be agreed upon and the deal sealed with a handshake before goods changed hands for cash. This is the way the flow of business has been taking place in Hatton Garden for over a century. It is a secret, private, hidden world that operates under a strict set of unspoken internal laws: never screw a partner and once a deal is done it is a mazen brucha and it must be adhered to.
In the mid 1980s, when the antique 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 from Essex. I spent my summer breaks from university helping out, working as a runner; collecting jobs for customers from the workshops dotted around the area. Whilst waiting for the finished item, I would stand and watch elderly craftsmen at work, hunched over wooden jewellery benches in quiet concentration; welding bands of platinum together with miniature tools, inserting tiny sparkling stones into clawed mounts, cutting deep blue sapphires into shape with diamond tipped saws. Most had developed their skills over decades, starting as fourteen-year-old apprentices sweeping up the shavings of gold left on the floor at night, before moving on to work at the jewellery benches. They described Hatton Garden before the war as ‘a Dickensian-looking place with a patchwork of rundown houses. There would be a setter in one room, a polisher in another, an engraver in another and, if you opened a door, sometimes a rat would run out.’ There were no retail shops in Hatton Garden then, the public were not encouraged to go there, it was primarily a place of manufacture and the centre of the world’s diamond trade.
The men in the workshops told me stories about the master craftsmen, who once worked in great numbers in Hatton Garden. ‘There was a Russian Jewish jeweller called Zebedas, who came to my workshop in the late 1930s,’ said Stanley Isaacs, a diamond cutter. ‘He was over eighty when he arrived to us from Paris, where he had been training since the 1900s. His workmanship was the best I have ever seen. The most extraordinary piece I saw him make was a perfect daffodil, commissioned by a Russian princess, made in eighteen-carat gold, the tiny stamens encrusted with diamonds. It took him over three months to make.’
In those days every pearl, every precious stone, every diamond – rough or cut – came through Hatton Garden. All the big brokerage took place there and the area had the best international reputation for fine, hand-made jewellery. Today, only a small proportion of the jewellery sold in the street is made by hand, the majority is either cast, or imported. A few of the master craftsmen remain, but when they die, their knowledge will be lost. The tradition of passing on skills from one generation to the next in the garden has all but stopped.
Hatton Garden is no longer the centre of the world jewellery market, although it remains a major player, but it is the largest cluster of jewellery-based businesses in the UK, with over three hundred separate companies that support the trade in the immediate area, and over fifty retail shops in the street itself. From the Holborn end of the street towards Clerkenwell, rows of jewellery shops line the street on both sides. Another network of hidden spaces exist both above and below these shops: heavily guarded underground vaults filled with wholesale stores of gold and silver, workshops where specialist items are painstakingly made to order, small rooms where precious gem dealers operate and Hasidic diamond merchants sit examining glittering stones, held tightly between silver tweezers.
Hatton Garden is a self-contained place. Everything the business needs can be found within one square mile: from the 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 aspects of the business, are Jewish. Orthodox Jews trade happily with assimilated secular Jews like my father. There are Jewish people working in Hatton Garden today from Israel, Iran, America, Holland and many other countries, who have links to an international network of jewellery markets in Antwerp, Tel-Aviv, New York and the Far East, making Hatton Garden one of the most cosmopolitan DISPATCH Diamonds in the Dark Rachel Lichtenstein on the hidden lives of Hatton Garden 9 Jewish commercial centres in the world. Despite the global nature of the business, the street retains a distinct village atmosphere. Everyone knows one other, gossip is rife and, much like in the former Eastern European shtetls, there are plenty of schlemiels, menschs and other intriguing Jewish characters making up the community.
One of these was Eli Zukerman, known with affection to all as Zuki. For over half a century he regularly made weekly rounds to the shops and suppliers in the street, personally dropping off his much sought after ‘specials’: French court wedding rings, made by Zuki to order, by pulling lengths of gold thread through different sized holes on a drawplate with a large pair of tongs until he got the right measurements. Each time the threads were pulled through they had to be quenched and then reheated again. It was hard physical work and Zuki had tremendous strength in his upper body, although he was nearly lame in his right foot. He worked from a small attic room near to Holborn Circus and it seemed unlikely that his operation was commercially successful. The process involved in making these rings was lengthy and Zuki was scrupulously honest and never overcharged. He raised his prices by the bare minimum when the cost of gold and platinum went up and never added on a penny if the quality of the metal declined, causing his rings to crumble and break halfway through the making.
Zuki’s life story was shrouded in mystery. He dressed like a tramp, always wearing old trousers tied up with string and a dirty old mac, but there were rumours he owned millions and lived with a young blonde wife in a large house in Essex. He’d come limping into the shops, energetically dragging one large flat foot behind the other and sit down with a sigh, wiping his bald head with a dirty handkerchief pulled from his pocket. Sometimes he would come into the back of the shop and have a cup of tea, telling stories about his time as a flight engineer during the war, assigned to Lancaster bombers. Once he told me how he acquired the legendary eighteenth-century drawplate, which he used to make his rings: ‘I bought it in the 1930s from a second-hand wedding ring manufacturer who had gone bankrupt. They had bought it from an antique shop years before. When I examined it I found a date on the back, 1789. This was the period when the French demanded smooth court weddings rings that felt like silk gloves.’ The rings Zuki was making with this drawplate, over two hundred years after it was manufactured, had the same profile as eighteenth century rings once much in demand by French royalty.
Zuki was well liked and respected by everyone in the community. I often saw him around the area, chatting on the street corners with shop owners, or standing with Hasidic diamond dealers in a tight huddle on the pavement, heads down, magnifying glasses out, examining some tiny object, usually a rough diamond. He retired from the Garden some time ago and no one had seen him for a long while when I happened to bump into him by chance in 2004 in Brick Lane, arguing with a couple of homeless-looking men outside the Bagel Bakery. He didn’t notice me at first. He had a salt beef sandwich in one hand and a coffee in the other. Hot, brown liquid was spilling from his polystyrene cup on to the pavement as his arms waved about in a wild fashion. As I approached, I heard his shouts were in Yiddish. I called his name and he turned towards me, spraying coffee and scraps of salt beef all over his companions as he did so. He came over to where I was standing, shook my hand vigorously and we spent some time talking. I told him about the book I was writing at the time about Brick Lane and he smiled. ‘I grew up here,’ he said, in his lisping Yiddisha accent. ‘Not far from where we are now standing.’ He began to tell me stories from his childhood, covering me in a fine film of spittle as he did so. He told me about the hidden mikva behind the great mosque, his visits to the Russian Steam Baths and tales from Black Lion Yard: ‘Those guys in the workshops there used to see the kids down in the street and throw pennies to them,’ he said, chuckling and choking at the same time. ‘But they’d heat them up first with the flames of the welding torches, then laugh when they tried to pick up the hot coins.’ I asked him if he remembered Rodinsky (the intriguing local figure I had written about in another book). He thought he probably did. ‘He was one of the Whitechapel cowboys I think,’ he 10 said. ‘You know, the frummers, in their big hats and long black coats, that’s what we used to call them, the Whitechapel Cowboys. Of course most of them have left here now, but there are still many working in Hatton Garden. Some of them I have known since they were kids.’
Moving on from tales of the East End, he began to talk about Hatton Garden, which he felt to be far more interesting. He knew the territory well, having begun his working life there in the late 1920s, as an apprentice in a large jewellery repair workshop. ‘There were about twenty people working in my department then,’ he said. ‘Mainly older men, some of them had wooden legs, they were veterans from the First World War. There was one old guy called Jacob Verns there, he had a wicked sense of humour. If a new kid started with us he used to jam a chisel into his wooden leg and start screaming and hollering. Thought it was hilarious. We had a lot of laughs and we sang all the time whilst we worked. Those old boys taught me all the music hall songs, and I still remember them.’ With that Zuki burst into song on the spot, closing his eyes and swaying from side to side as he sang: ‘Darling I am growing old, Silver threads among the gold, Shine upon my brow today, Life is fading fast away…’ A fit of coughing stopped him mid-song. When he regained composure he seemed reluctant to reminisce further but was keen to tell me other stories, relating to the history of Hatton Garden, of which he had a growing interest. He spoke at great speed, his large eyes expanding widely as he talked. He told me that the entire area floats above a labyrinthine network of subterranean spaces: abandoned railway platforms buried deep underground, decommissioned government bunkers and forgotten 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 fragmented stories about chaingangs marching from Hatton Garden to an underground river near Fleet Street, before travelling on to Australia. He spoke of the Diamond Club being used by medical students from Barts for dissecting dead bodies. He recounted stories of highwaymen and daring thefts where jewels were scattered over the pavement, and told tales of abandoned monasteries, extra-terrestrial sightings, hauntings and freak fairs. ‘Did you know,’ he said, whilst grabbing my arm tightly, ‘that Hatton Garden was once the site of an elegant palace, surrounded by vast gardens, with fountains, vineyards and orchards?’ Before he 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 off into the throng, arms akimbo, passionately contributing to the heated debate. I never saw him again. Despite many attempts to find him, it has been impossible to do so. But he did spark my interest in the wider history of the area that day and, slowly over time, I began to find out more.