Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

The Fine Art of Silversmithing


At the sign of the Golden Ball all that glitters isn’t gold, or very little of it at any rate. For Master Silversmith George Cloyed and his staff of two journeymen and four apprentices silver is their trade, and in their hands pieces of metal called ingots are forged out, hammered smooth, and polished into something quite extraordinary.
The silversmith’s shop located on Duke of Gloucester Street is rarely empty of visitors. It’s one of the few shops open seven days a week and ranks second only to the blacksmith with the number of visitors it attracts. In the brief time we had to observe and talk about the art of 18thc silversmithing, we caught just a glimpse into an art form that has been an integral part of America’s history since the late 1600s.
Silversmithing was considered one of the luxury trades, yet from 1699 to 1780 some fifteen or more silversmiths operated in Williamsburg, likely seven to eight operating simultaneously at the height of Williamsburg’s economic prosperity in the decade prior to the Revolution.
Many were importers of silver as well as fine craftsmen, for many of the principal pieces desired by wealthy residents were hand-crafted in England. The colonies were, after all, an English monopoly existing to supply raw materials and a market for England’s finished goods. Colonial silversmiths could import finished silver but not bullion or unworked silver, nor were they permitted to import silver from other countries.
The Golden Ball is styled in the fashion of a shop owned by London goldsmith, silversmith, and jeweler James Craig, who immigrated to Virginia in 1746 and by 1766 had established his trade in the family home located in the heart of the merchant district. As the current Master Silversmith since 2001, George is entering his fifth decade in the trade and well aware he is continuing a time-honored craft that began here some 250 years ago.
His introduction to the Colonial Capitol began with a fourth grade field trip on a rainy April day. He recalls visiting the shop but for a time it remained just a footnote in his memory. In high school he began silversmithing as a hobby and began studying it in earnest in college. Deciding to become a silversmith, the logical place to look for an apprenticeship was Williamsburg, which he entered in 1975.
So how does one decide to take on silversmithing as a hobby? “When I was a Boy Scout I was interested in Native American lore and belonged to a Native American dance team where we made our own costumes, drummed, and danced. But at a certain point in life you become interested in girls and non-native guys who dress up in Indian garb look silly,” George laughs. “So my interest in Indian lore was rerouted to Indian silversmithing, working with turquoise and stamped silver in the Navaho style. From there my interests expanded to making Colonial-era hollowware vessels, and I studied silversmithing at Carnegie Mellon University before coming here.”
Many of the shop’s staff grew up locally and came to work at Colonial Williamsburg in various capacities before being accepted into the apprenticeship program. Together, the six silversmiths bring over 100 years of combined experience. It is an intensive art requiring a steady hand, some knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy, and math, as well as an artistic eye for details.
The shop is typical of silversmith establishments in the 18thc, with a sales and display area up front and the forge and work space in back. Oftentimes there would have been a workbench located in front of the shop by the window to take advantage of the natural light. A long counter sits perpendicular to the front door, where display cases called presses advertise their latest creations. Large glass-fronted wall cabinets display larger pieces.
“Everything would be locked up behind glass as it is today because an ounce of silver was worth three day’s pay for the average worker,” George explains. “Six to seven shillings per ounce may not sound like much except when you have to work three days to earn it.”
Yet no well-heeled Georgian household would consider serving their guests on anything less than silver. With its polished luster and timeless elegance, silver has been historically the symbol of respectability, refinement, and wealth. From the time one’s guests entered the front door, much of what was served up was presented on a silver tray or salver.
The majority of the silverwork in 18thc Williamsburg was considered modest pieces: spoons, shoe buckles, hairpins, buttons, and jewelry. Today the Golden Ball turns out a greater variety of things in order to demonstrate what colonial silversmiths would have been producing throughout the colonies, in large cities and small. Hollowware such as coffee pots, tea pots, and serving pieces.
In the 18thc the trade’s greatest difficulty was obtaining unfinished silver. The vast majority of silver material was recycled from pre-existing items: worn out spoons, spent shoe buckles, hairpins, broken pieces of jewelry, coins, and finished pieces that its owners considered out of fashion.
Customers brought in their worn and broken silver pieces to be weighed, valued, and entered into the accounts book. They were charged separately for the silver and the fashioning, both based upon the finished weight of the piece. The silversmith would then deduct the value of the scrap silver and coins that had been turned in.
The scrap silver would be melted down in a graphite and clay crucible, refined if necessary with salt peter to remove impurities, and the refined silver would be assayed to determine how much copper to add to create sterling silver that is 92.5% silver and 7% copper. From there the silver was melted down and poured into warmed iron molds greased with tallow.
“Today we buy silver in a variety of forms,” says George, “including wire and sheet in various gauges of thickness. We also take casting grains, small irregular pellets of sterling that we melt down, along with clean sterling scrap, a byproduct of our own crafting operations, in order to produce our ingots.”
The ingot surface is scrapped clean of any embedded debris, heated to 1100ºF, and hammered into a sheet. Initially hammered hot, as it thins the metal is hammered cold, which causes it to work harden. The ingot is then heated to a dull red and quenched in a five percent solution of sulfuric acid to make it more malleable. The acid cleans the metal and whitens the surface by dissolving out some of the copper.
Each time the metal cools and becomes work-hardened, it’s reheated to remove the stresses and make it malleable once again. It takes approximately three hours to reduce an ingot into a sheet of the desired thickness.
Before beginning work, the various components are cut from the flat sheets of silver with iron shears or drawn from wire on a draw bench. The metal is then annealed and hammered on anvils of different shapes and sizes. One hammer blow at a time, the various components take shape. Thousands of hammer blows and several annealings later, the finished shapes are ready to be joined with heat and solder.
“We solder small items like rings, jewelry, and hinges using a blowpipe and alcohol lamp,” George points out. “Larger items are soldered together in the forge. It’s hard work, physical work. A cup or small bowl requires twelve to fourteen hours to make.” A coffee pot can take dozens of more hours to create.
After careful filing and cleaning, the piece is polished with pumice, followed by rottenstone (a porous powdered rock also called tripoli), and then rouge until it sparkles with a glow only silver can impart.
The silversmith staff has produced an impressive body of work over the years. “We’ve made pieces for kings, queens, and presidents. We made a piece for the Dali Llama. The most challenging items have been bread baskets, a teakettle, several salvers, and the saffron pot made for Queen Elizabeth II. It was fluted and had a hidden, recessed hinge, which is always a tough job. We frequently help in the making of silver bells that are presented to our donors as gifts, but the bulk of our work goes next door to the Golden Ball gift shop to be sold at retail to visitors.”
The love of silver may have tarnished over the years as entertaining styles have changed and newer materials developed that require less upkeep. The shop too has evolved, with items that reflect the changing times. “We make fewer coffee pots and more jewelry. When you factor in our 18thc labor into today’s cost, few people want to spend $17,500 on a handmade coffee pot. We depend largely on customers with lesser means,” George smiles.
The art of silversmithing remains a time-honored tradition requiring skill and teamwork. The unique beauty and character of a hand-wrought sterling silver piece justifies the time, effort, and patience regardless the century.