Exploring the Archives of Hamilton & Inches

On the very top floor of 87 George Street, in a room offset from our expert jewellers’ workshop, our project archivist Amy Cawood has immersed herself in the history of Hamilton & Inches. With a BA Hons degree in English Literature from Cambridge University, an MSc in Records Management and Digital Preservation and a career mostly spent in academic libraries, she has taken the challenge of piecing together the story of Hamilton & Inches in her stride.

Over the past 150 years, our business has been an integral part of Edinburgh. The work undertaken by Amy is help breathing life into an institution with such vast and varied connections.

Hamilton & Inches opened its doors at 90 Princes Street in May 1866. Founded by Robert Kirk Inches and his uncle James Hamilton, the company offered a range of luxury jewellery and silverware, introducing watches to the collection in 1883.

It wasn’t until 1952 that the company moved to George Street under the ownership of Robert’s grandson Ian but within those 86 years, the company and its people had made its mark on society.

While there are many factual accounts of the business, its operation and its people, there are many stories that have remained hidden away until unearthed by our inquisitive archivist. Some of them, in their time, might have not seemed particularly interesting but looking back they combine to tell a rich and fascinating story of Hamilton & Inches.

One of the first set of artefacts Amy found were two carefully boxed and sealed Royal Warrant medals gifted from Queen Victoria to Robert Kirk Inches on the occasion of her diamond jubilee in 1896. The second warrant medal was from Queen Elizabeth for her silver jubilee in 1977.

Both medals are beautifully crafted with intricate details and will be proudly displayed as part of our archive collection.

Amy has found receipts for Maharajas, treasures crafted for princes and dukes, photographs of unique items of huge importance… those little gems add a huge level of richness to our company.

Whilst working in the archive is not usually very glamorous; lots of dirt, dust and sneezing, occasionally a little hint of the style and elegance that is the essence of Hamilton & Inches creeps through. In this instance it took the form of a tiny scrap of newspaper…

It was a brief interview with Mr Ian Inches, grandson of the Company’s founder, shortly before his retirement in 1987. A little bit of history drawing to a close. Nothing very new, but then Amy’s interest was piqued by the last couple of sentences: “Hamilton & Inches customers have included the chicest of women, including Marlene Dietrich…” Now that was something glamorous – and no one had heart it before.

A brief search revealed that the German born star had been photographed in George Street, not far from the showroom, during the 1964 Edinburgh Festival. However, after a bit of digging in the old sales ledgers and a trawl through contemporary newspaper reports, Amy found nothing that confirmed that she had ever visited the store.

Not to be defeated, she then contacted Sotheby’s and Nate Sanders, an American auction house, to see if they had handled any Hamilton & Inches pieces that might have once belonged to Ms Dietrich. The catalogue for the 1997 Beverley Hills auction of her personal property contained tantalising items that could well have been purchased here, but the lot descriptions were limited.

That is the difficult, yet hugely rewarding job, of being an archivist. Sometimes you are offered a tantalising piece of a story and it will take, sometimes years, to ever be completed. It strengthens the importance of compiling and safeguarding our current work and preserving it for the future.

Whilst we might never know if Ms Dietrich visited us, we like to imagine the charismatic, husky voiced diva strolling into our elegant showroom and receiving the personal and high quality service that still mark out Hamilton & Inches today.

To find out more about this history of Hamilton & Inches, why not read our story?