Firmin & Sons are older than the Bank of England. Established in 1655, their products were present at the Battles of The Nile, Trafalgar, Waterloo and Gettysburg. They maintain the finest collection of medal, badge and button dies in the world, including the original dies cut for the buttons worn by Admiral Lord Nelson. Operating in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, Firmin also manufacture Alice Made This’ Military Hardware collection of cufflinks and lapel pins. We pay a return visit to the factory.
It’s first thing on a Monday morning and I can hear the stamping and punching of machines behind Firmin & Sons’ workshop doors. While waiting to go and explore, my eyes wander from wall to wall, medal to medal, and eventually rest on a letter from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, thanking Firmin for their work on the uniforms for the Royal Wedding.
Once inside, walking around the Firmin & Sons factory floor is like being inside a well-oiled machine with countless cogs yet a definite sense of order. Every process has its station, every station has its machine and every machine has its machinist. There are components everywhere; crates of metal and batches of orders, ranging from badges for the front of Met Police helmets to intricate buttons for the MOD.
It is the deep draw stamping process, used for our military cufflinks and lapel pins, that I am introduced to first. Computer aided drawings are translated onto a pantograph and drawn onto a metal die block at a scale of 1:1. Blank metal rectangles are positioned over the die and an Osterwalder press drops a weight at speed upon the blank, pressing it heavily into the die. Technically known as a ‘blow’, each piece goes through this process three times to achieve a sharp stamp detail.
Once stamped, each Alice Made This accessory is punched, polished, shanked, welded and finished to form honest and refined pieces.
The work bench is covered with dies. I see the ones used for our products sat amongst familiar military symbols and motifs, used for regalia and accoutrements right across the military and defence forces. Unmistakeable type faces, laurel leaves and decorative patterns.
I then move on to discover the rest of the factory. I see how the buttons are made. Firmin & Sons have been the royal button makers for every monarch since King George II and supplied the buttons for both sides fighting in the American Civil War. This claim to history is more than apparent in the expertise of their craftsmen. Die-formed, three piece buttons are fitted with a separate wire shank, a circular convex front and a flat back with a machine crimped joint. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, ready to be sent out for ceremonial and parade use. Concentration and detail is key. Yes, the buttons are machined, but behind every machine is a skilled machinist whose hands are their greatest tool.
Firmin are also one of the last few companies left in the UK who have the skills required, under one roof, to take a design for a medal and produce it from start to finish. They possess 3D dies capable of striking a solid metal, creating medals for Admirals, General and Air Marshalls alike.
As well as the intricate, and often hand finished medals, I see the production of helmets for the Royal Cavalry and even a full suit of armour for a live action role play project. I see how the armour and helmets begin as flat sheets of metal before they are shaped, punched, welded and polished to create the remarkable, regal displays we are so used to seeing. They also have the capabilities to make swords in national traditional styles, with blades and scabbards ornamented with precious metals and stones. This is an armoury that can do it all.
Finally I am led away from the loud and industrial factory floor to a quieter backroom, where a couple of lovely Brummie ladies are sat adding enamel by hand to a batch of badges. They sit for hours, radio on, expertly applying countless colours of enamel by hand, waiting for them to dry and then continuing with the next layer or design. I’m even shown how they can make their own enamel in house, grinding down the glass themselves.
As I return to the waiting room, the letter from William & Kate takes on a new meaning. This is not a factory that senselessly churns out huge batches of metalwork. This is a team that carefully monitors and hand finishes beautiful details and accoutrements. This team will have been able to watch the Royal Wedding thinking ‘I did that’, ‘that’s my enamel’, ‘I remember what song was playing when I soldered that part’. They are individually contributing to history and the upkeep of military tradition.
I leave in awe of their craft, but with a dull drop in my stomach. I only saw one apprentice in the factory the entire morning I was there and apparently he was the only one. Alice Made This are proud to work with Firmin & Sons on our newest military collection of cufflinks and lapel pins, however I cannot help but fear that other projects in the future will not be as fortunate. There is a human element to manufacturing and machining that cannot disappear. We must keep them alive for the next 350 years.
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