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Oldest Jewellers in Australia














Like father, like son. Peter Bird (left), current fourth generation with his father David Bird.
Like father, like son. Peter Bird (left), current fourth generation with his father David Bird.

Now & Then: Abrecht Bird Jewellers

Jeweller takes a closer look at the history of Abrecht Bird Jewellers with Leon Corn, co-director, as it turns 146 this year.

FOUNDED BY Friedrich Robert Abrecht
ESTABLISHED 1875
LOCATION Melbourne, VIC

» VISIT ABRECHT BIRD JEWELLERS
» VIEW PHOTOS: FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM 

 

 

Beginning as two separate family businesses in Melbourne, the origin of Abrecht Bird Jewellers dates back to 15 December 1875 when, as a 17-year- old, Friedrich Robert Abrecht migrated from Pforzheim, Germany to Melbourne and founded jewellery manufacturing business Fred Robt Abrecht.

Originally located in the City Chambers on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets, he sold findings to local jewellery manufacturers – one of which was J Bird & Son.

J Bird & Son was founded by Birmingham-born diamond setter John Bird and his son Leigh in 1910, with premises on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets and then at 343 Little Collins Street.

Friedrich Robert Abrecht passed away in 1913, two years after a devastating robbery at the office. His sons, Herbert Brisbane “Bris” Abrecht and Percy “Pop” Abrecht took over and switched the focus to the importation of diamonds and gemstones as well as the manufacture of fine jewellery.

During the Great Depression, Fred Robt. Abrecht quietly moved into jewellery retail when it acquired the failing Dumbrells Jewellers on Bourke Street. Bris’ sons John Brisbane “Bruce” Abrecht and Noel Robert Abrecht also joined the business at this time, in 1934, and continued to run it until Noel’s retirement in 1994. 

This was also a time of expansion for Fred Robt. Abrecht, with offices opened in Sydney, Brisbane, and Tasmania. At the time, the business was the only wholesale diamond merchant with interstate branches.

However, with the supply of diamonds constrained by World War II, Fred Robt. Abrecht moved into Swiss watch importation. As Noel Abrecht’s son-in-law, I left advertising and joined the business in 1971, training in gemstone selection, gemmology, and diamond technology.

The 1970s also saw the introduction of one of Fred Robt. Abrecht’s most iconic designs, the patented Abrecht Hinged Ring. The business moved to new premises on the 12th floor of the Wales Corner Building in 1977.

Meanwhile, J Bird & Son also experienced a prosperous start to the 20th Century. The workload increased so much in its first 10 years that John Bird’s second son, Eric, joined the business in 1920. By 1925, a wholesale business was formed with buying, designing, manufacturing, and setting of jewellery under the Meteor brand name.

Meteor became known for fine filigree diamond engagement rings in the 1930s.

At the end of World War II, Leigh Bird’s son David joined the family business after studying accountancy, and by the 1950s the J Bird & Son reputation for extremely high-quality jewellery reached far and wide across Australia.

Head jeweller Kevin Harris and his apprentice Jodie Robin set the standard. Salesman Ken Styles, who started as a jewellery apprentice at J Bird & Son in 1957, was also instrumental in building the business over his 30 years there.  

In 1981, David asked his son Peter – a stockbroker-turned-teacher – to follow his footsteps and join J Bird & Son; by the late 1980s, Peter had assumed the majority of control over the business’ day-to-day operations.

Both J Bird & Son and Fred Robt. Abrecht were awarded the Lord Mayor’s Generational Family Business Commendation, which is given to businesses which have employed three or more generations of a family.

In late 1991, a serendipitous meeting occurred between John Bird’s grandson David Bird and myself, Leon Corn, son-in-law of Friedrich Abrecht’s grandson Noel Abrecht. David had come to collect a job, to find that Fred Robt. Abrecht was on the verge of closure after 117 years in business.

David introduced me to his son, Peter Bird, and the two businesses successfully merged to form Abrecht Jewellers in 1992. No lawyers were involved; we drafted separate agreements and compared the two, to find they were almost identical!

It was an indication of just how much the two businesses had in common, and both families shared common values. In fact, many years later, the two would be joined in marriage as well as business when Aaron Bird and Shannan Abrecht – the great-grandchildren of John Bird and Friedrich Abrecht – wed after a chance meeting in Tasmania!

To reflect the legacy of both families, the business was renamed Abrecht Bird Jewellers in 2007.

After ceasing trade work, Abrecht Bird has focused on individual handmaking for private clients, employing a staff of seven – three jewellers and four in administration.

More recently, a gallery has been developed to showcase the awards and artistic talents of the workshop jewellers: Greg John, who joined the business as a partner in 2000 and was previously workshop manager at Fred Robt. Abrecht, Eleanor Hawke, and Yuki Mathwin.

Peter still sees challenges ahead and puts in long hours each day, making sure the ship runs as it always has. I still work two days a week too, even approaching age 82. 

Having experienced one of the toughest years in over a century in 2020, myself, Peter, and the Abrecht Bird staff have come through without too much of a downturn, thanks in part to the government assistance and to the clever use of social media. For most of the year the office was closed, but the email list saved the day.

The 145-year history of the business has created a wealth of experience in producing high-quality jewellery as well as completing challenging repair work.

We are acutely aware of our responsibility to uphold the traditions of our founders and their successors, and at the same time realise how important it is to keep up to date with the latest trends in fashion and marketing.

Quality products, ethical business practices and loyal hard-working staff are at the heart of Abrecht Bird Jewellers. This gives customers the confidence to continue to place their loyalty and trust in such an experienced organisation – and when it comes to jewellery, trust is paramount.

To quote the first words imparted to me from my father-in-law Noel: “The customer’s jewellery is one of their most precious possessions which they are leaving in your care – always remember that son.”

Succession plans are always in Peter’s thoughts as he approaches his 70th birthday, and some discussions have been undertaken to explore the options.

Hopefully, the Abrecht and Bird names will live on, perhaps without any family involvement, but continuing in the same tradition as the past 146 years.

FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM



Above: 
John Bird, founder of J Bird & Son

Left: Fred Robt. Abrecht moved into York House on Little Collins Street as one of its first tenants in 1925 and remained there until the building closed in 1977 (pictured in 1953)



Above: The Fred Robt. Abrecht office was subjected to a devastating robbery in 1910 – at the time, the largest Melbourne had ever seen – from which Friedrich Abrecht never fully recovered

Left: Fred Robt. Abrecht took over retailer Dumbrells Jewellers on Bourke Street during the Great Depression, saving it from closure

 

Left: Peter Bird and his father David Bird in 1999

Above: The J Bird & Son workshop in 1949
Left: Friedrich Robert Abrecht's Certificate of Membership to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce

Left: The Abrecht Bird Jewellers team today – (L-R) Greg John, Yuki Mathwin, Stephanie Tkalcevic, Eleanor Hawke, Kylie Beachley, Peter Bird and Leon Corn

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leon Corn

Leon Corn is co-director of Abrecht Bird Jewellers, one of Melbourne's most prestigious jewellery businesses with a history dating back more than 145 years. Visit: www.abrecht.com.au








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