Life & Culture

How we got our Hatton



Hatton Garden has always been one of London's most enigmatic places. A set of scruffy streets where deal-making market traders, media executives and high-hatted Chasidim mingle with hand-holding couples looking for their jewel-encrusted bond of love, while tourists snap endlessly away on their cameras.

This month Hatton Garden was in the news for very different reasons, a daring jewel heist has robbed many of these dealers and their clients of precious items worth tens of millions of pounds. The details of how the masked raiders - taking advantage of a long weekend that combined both Easter and Passover holidays - broke into an underground vault and cleaned out dozens of safety deposit boxes is almost out of a fanciful movie plot.

The story of the heist may be extraordinary but it is nothing in comparison to the colourful story of this area. Hatton Garden has been the centre of the jewellery trade since Medieval times and still boasts a tight-knit community of Chasidic Jews, the master-craftsmen who have worked in this part of London for more than a century. But its glorious past reaches much farther back.

At the boundary of Clerkenwell and Hatton Garden - in the place once known as Little Italy - in the middle of the road is a manhole cover through which you can hear the sound of the mythic Fleet river, which still flows beneath this part of London. Warrior monks once had a wharf upon the Fleet where they moored their ships, returning weary from distant lands to tend verdant estates upon the hillsides descending to the river valley. In time, these religious communities gave way to Renaissance palaces, superseded by prisons for the unacceptable people and fine brick terraces for the artisans, all surrounded by squalor and thievery, as the growing city overcame the bucolic suburb and the river went underground.

Sir Christopher Hatton, a famous landowner who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and sponsored Sir Francis Drake's round-the-world voyage, gave his name to the area which was owned by the Bishop of Ely. Sir Christopher's family started building houses in the 1660s and Hatton Street was renamed Hatton Garden where the Imperial Pearl Company was - and still is - located, having been established in 1840.

Author Rachel Lichtenstein has written extensively about the Jews in Hatton Garden. According to her research, they have been involved in the jewellery trade since the 17th century, when Portuguese diamond cutters and polishers settled there. "The jewellery quarter of Hatton Garden is one of London's most mysterious areas, which is home to diamond workshops, underground vaults, monastic dynasties, subterranean rivers and forgotten palaces," Lichtenstein writes in her fascinating book Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden.

Within this roughly square mile, there are 300 separate companies and 60 shops, most of them run by Orthodox Jews, many of whom arrived as refugees from the Nazis. In fact, until relatively recently only Yiddish or Hebrew was spoken by the gold dealers.

Hatton Garden's reputation for diamond dealing came at the end of the 19th century when De Beers chose to sell all its stones through London, creating a culture of related trades that persists to this day.

In the 1820s a company called Johnson and Cock established a reputation for refining precious metals in Hatton Garden, which triggered the development of the jewellery trade and skilled Jewish immigrants flocked to open workshops.

"Until the Second World War, business was conducted on the street, or in one of several kosher cafes. Prices were agreed with a handshake and a cry of 'Mazel','' Lichtenstein says.

One jeweller, Isadore Mitziman, told Lichtenstein: "It amazes me the whole place [Hatton Garden] doesn't cave in with the weight of gold and heavy metal above and all those ancient, watery passageways honeycombing the ground underneath."

In the second half of the 20th century, a plethora of jewellery shops opened in Hatton Garden, shifting the business away from manufacturing for the wholesale market towards the retail trade, especially for engagement and wedding rings. Lichtenstein's book is like one of these shops, containing so many sparkling things, elegantly organised just as she once arranged diamond rings in a tray. It is an overwhelming trove of stories with a multiplicity of facets to intrigue.

It was Laurence Graff - a son of Jewish East End immigrants - who opened Hatton Garden's first retail jeweller in 1962.

Graff was born in Stepney in 1938, the son of a Romanian mother and Russian father who made suits in Commercial Road and his mother ran a tobacconist and newsagent.

Self-educated and self-made, the East End boy left school at 14 and worked as a toilet cleaner. But in an amazing fairytale twist he found work as a jeweller's apprentice in Hatton Garden and years later had become a super-salesman who was able to buy his own diamond mine outside Johannesburg.

In Diamond Geezers and Gold Dealers, a TV documentary which was broadcast last year, it was clear to see why so many Jewish traders from diamond merchants to secular shop owners have managed to prosper and that an old-school way of doing business is still there.

As one dealer explained on the TV documentary: "The jewellery trade has traditionally appealed to Jews and around 70 per cent of Hatton Garden traders are Jewish.

"Precious stones were a Jewish speciality and it was not uncommon to see rough diamonds being sold in the local kosher restaurants."

More Jewish retailers soon followed, some selling locally-made wares while others obtained their merchandise from further afield or bought and sold second-hand jewellery.

And most of them stored their precious cargo in the basement vault with concrete two metres thick that now lies shattered. The robbery may have been spectacular and audacious but the after-effects for those whose lives have been ruined will be felt for years to come.

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