To coin a phase

Clay Technology magazine
7 Jun 2019

The Royal Mint’s limited edition coin celebrates Wedgwood’s history but also highlights financial problems in the UK’s modern day pottery industry.

One of England’s most prestigious ceramics producers is marking its 260th anniversary with a commemorative coin. The £2 piece was designed by Wedgwood Waterford Royal Doulton and features an interpretation of one of the company’s best-known products, its jasperware vase, created by the founder Josiah Wedgwood.

But the celebrations have been somewhat tarnished, coming soon after the company announced plans to cut more than 100 job cuts at its Barleston factory in the UK, to take production overseas. On 2 May, Wedgwood’s Finnish owner, Fiskars, confirmed that while an initial 145 jobs were under consideration, this had been reduced to 103.

Pottery union GMB hotly responded to the decision, pointing out that Wedgwood had received £5.1mln of public money in 2012 through the government’s Regional Growth Fund, to help safeguard 440 jobs at the Barleston factory for 25 years and to create a further 102 at Stoke-on-Trent. This was planned through upgrading of machinery and building of a visitor centre to attract people to the potteries.

GMB Senior Organiser, Amanda Gearing, said, ‘Obviously we’re happy that less of our members are about to have their jobs taken away from them – but it’s still devastating news.

‘Why should the taxpayer pay for a Finnish company to take British jobs overseas? Fiskars say they’re reducing complexity in their business – there’s nothing complicated about this smash-and-grab of public funds to profit big business.’

GMB has since launched a petition to save its members’ jobs, and Gearing added that ‘either this money is clawed back and used to retrain the workers who face being thrown on the scrapheap or Wedgwood thinks again and takes these redundancies off the table’.

Wedgwood responded to the outrage by stating that downsizing was an unfortunate necessity if the company is to keep the site operating.

The UK pottery sector has been hit hard in recent years, and the risk of retaining staff became clear when Stoke-on-Trent’s Dudson collapsed in April, just one month after Wedgwood announced redundancies. Dudson, which had continued to operate with a full workforce, had faced persistent financial problems which eventually sent the company into administration, with 318 people losing their jobs without warning or consultation. The remaining staff were kept on solely to assist the closure.

In light of this, Wedgwood’s £2 coin is certainly bittersweet. While seemingly a joke to some, for others it stands as testament to the longevity of the company, and the heritage of Josiah Wedgwood – a man famed for his creativity, industriousness and commitment to the adoption of new technologies, methods of process, and fair treatment of workers. The design was developed to honour his experimentation with materials that led to the creation of jasperware, but also the craftsman himself, and includes his lifelong motto, ‘everything gives way to experiment’.

The coins are being minted in a range that includes, at its most expensive, 225 limited edition 22 carat gold models which retail for £845. In the middle are two silver models – a double-weight coin struck in 925 sterling silver for £110, and one in 925 silver and plated with fine gold for £67.50. Then at the affordable end is a £10 version to complete the collection.