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George Hook, the pearly king of the Black Country

Once there were thousands of pearl workers in the Midlands, but now there is just one.

Once there were thousands of pearl workers in the Midlands, but now there is just one operating his trade: George Hook. Chris Upton visits him at his small workshop in the Black Country.

george hook

Pope Street in Smethwick is not a place where you would expect to find beauty and artistry. There were once back-to-backs here, but they have long since given way to a motley assortment of garages, lock-ups and factory units. And in this modest industrial estate George Hook plies his trade.

Inside an unprepossessing front door lies all the gadgetry of industrial Birmingham, the kind that once filled so many workshops: drop-stamps and drills and polishers and cutters and all manner of lathes. The equipment itself is relatively straightforward; simple enough even for me to understand. But I could not begin to do what George does with these few tools.

George Hook is a master pearl worker. So was his father, and his father before him. In fact, the genealogy goes back five generations, and before that there was a John Hook, who advertised himself as a pearl button maker in Duke Street, Aston, in 1824.
With a little luck, George should complete the double-century of a family business. Certainly his father – another George – was working up to the last three weeks of his life, and he almost reached his 96th birthday.

george hook

What George Hook does is buy exotic shells – abalone, trochus, conch and oyster – and cuts, fashions and polishes them.
The result can be anything from a delicate little spoon to an earring, a button, the handle of a fruit knife, or a brooch. Scarf slides are also a popular line, and the thinnest of pieces of mother of pearl might provide the decorative inlay on the fretboard of a guitar.

“The caviar spoon is more expensive than the yoghurt spoon,” he jokes, “but it’s actually the same spoon!”

We have shellfish to thank for all this. It is the property of most molluscs, including our own humble snail, to secrete a mucous, technically known as nacre, which coats the inside of its home.

“It’s just a sort of hardened spit,” says George prosaically. “In chemical terms it’s calcium carbonate.”

george hook

Pop a grain of sand or grit inside an oyster shell and it will be secreted away until the offending grain is covered by layers and layers of mucous, which then harden.

The pearl, cultured or natural, is the most prized outcome of this process, but it is far from the only possible one. The inner lining of such shells – what we usually call mother of pearl – can be equally spectacular in the right hands.

From way back in the 18th century scientists puzzled over what gave mother of pearl its iridescence, or any other kind of pearl its milky depth of colour.
Ultimately it’s a trick of the light being refracted and bent through all those layers of nacre. Such clever work by so simple a creature.
Unfortunately for anyone wishing to make pearl jewellery, it does not come from the kind of shells you can pick up on the beach at Weston or Torquay.
George goes online to order his barrels of shells and they come from as far afield as Australia, Japan, Polynesia and the Philippines. The drums usually weigh 50 or 100 kilos.
In the 19th century the most prized shells were those called Macassa and Manilla.

Gnarled and unpromising they look from the outside, but opening up reveals the pearly interior.

In some the oysters have been engaged in interior decoration for 10 years and more, and the mother of pearl coating can be over half an inch thick.

How thick the layers are, and whether they have been holed by an interfering worm, determines what George can make of them. But very little ever goes to waste, and even the fine powder shaved off during the cutting process might have a use. There’s a large bowl of it in the workshop, as fine as flour.

“There’s probably a cosmetics market I haven’t broken into yet,” George comments, “so I’m keeping the dust just in case.”
Encouragingly, on the sideboard in his office is a small Victorian pot with the label “Machin’s infallible pearl ointment, made by Machin Ltd, Pensnett.”

George Hook is probably tired with being described as the last of a long and distinguished line, but so he is.

There may once have been as many as 3,000 people engaged in the pearl button trade in Birmingham, mostly living in the Jewellery Quarter.

George’s sister, Sue Perfect, has published a history of the Birmingham Pearlies, and has helpfully included a transcript of the 1841 census to show the concentration of pearl button makers in Caroline Street and Northwood Street, though the trade could be found over in Handsworth and in the streets off Broad Street, too, and even where the pearl was not being cut and shaped, the buttons were being polished and carded in back-rooms.

Unlike George Hook, who can turn his hand in any direction, the little workshops that made up the “city of a thousand trades” tended to produce only one kind of item, and sell on the parts of the shell they didn’t need to another workshop.
Rarely would that shop be much more than a family business, perhaps with an apprentice or two.

At the height of the trade Birmingham was importing close to 2,000 tons of shells a year, and the tentacles of British trade reached to every part of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The peak of the global trade was probably shortly before the First World War, when almost 400 vessels in the south seas were collecting shells.

The Hook family business has been on the move often over the past century or so. George’s great-grandfather was making pearl handles in Hall Street, Hockley.

His son was in Warstone Lane for a time, but after the First World War moved back to Barr Street.

This was where George senior learned his trade and its tricks, such as producing the smoothest of finishes by using French sand mixed with oil and ensuring the cleanest of cuts by greasing the cutter with mutton fat.

There were later moves to Moorsom Street, Villa Street and finally to Pope Street.

Where the pearlies would once have rubbed shoulders with countless other pearlies, in Smethwick George is more likely to rub shoulders with a motor mechanic. 

As the sole survivor of the trade in the Midlands, you might expect George to be raking it in, but George does not recommend pearl working as a lucrative career option. So much of the trade has been displaced by plastic.

Today, George makes much of his money by giving talks to interested groups, and then selling a few souvenirs.
“Some weeks I’ve been known to give as many as four evening talks,” he says, which is why he’s on the programme for just about every society I’ve ever spoken to as well.

* George Hook can be contacted on 0121 5582186.

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