Pieces of Passion - Interview with a silversmith
Describe a typical day at the silversmiths.
I start my day by getting a good overview of what I am to work on that particular day. I usually spend between 2 and 4 days working on the same piece – e.g. 2 days filing, 3 days hammering, 1 day correcting and 1 day soldering, but often work on larger pieces which can take months to complete and involve other silversmiths with specialist skills. When I work on smaller pieces, the work is the same but scaled down to, say, just 1 or 2 days.
How do you begin to create the piece you are working on?
I am given a sketch from which I create the piece. I follow it through all the necessary processes to finish, which often includes the skills of other silversmiths. It’s my job to ensure we have the sheets of silver we need to create it, that chasing is correct, to plan with the polisher when he can have the piece to do his work, and to make sure that delivery is on schedule. It can take hours, sometimes days or months, to get a single piece or part of a piece exactly how you want it. The complexity of the piece makes this process much more challenging and time consuming.
What is the most important aspect of your job?
My primary role is to ensure the piece is interpreted correctly and represents the designer’s wishes. I read and analyse the drawings to select the correct tools for the job, or modify my existing tools to make sure they are equipped to create the right look.
How do you go about interpreting a designer’s drawings?
When I have the possibility to speak with the designer, I do. The designer will come in and discuss his or her thoughts and wishes so that I can create precisely the piece they envisioned. However, the pieces I work on represent to a greater extent my interpretation of their designs. Each hammer mark I make is a unique expression of my personality and my craftsmanship. When I am given the drawing I read and interpret it, and the piece becomes my hallmark within the brand.
What are your particular characteristics?
If you are in the trade, you can undoubtedly see the difference in hammering techniques. My hand, my arm, my body hit with and hold tools in a certain way; another craftsman does so differently. Different silversmiths use different ways of executing the same technique that is preferential to them.
How do you work together with the other silversmiths?
We have a really good connection and often bounce ideas about designs and how to shape them. The faster you learn to be open to the advice and opinions of others, the better a silversmith you become, and, in turn, you create a better product. I ask my colleagues several times daily what they think; how they would approach a particular part of the process; if they can help with a specific problem. And they do the same. We are focused individually on the piece we work on from start to finish, but are undoubtedly a team. We offer advice and support throughout the process to ensure the absolute best possible results.
What’s the most challenging piece you have created?
The Long Xing Chinese dragon. The dragon’s double curve is technically challenging as each surface naturally works against each other. It took almost four months of daily work to perfect. The Jardiniére II I’m currently working takes more than 6 months of work on my part. Additionally, there are four other silversmiths who each work full time on the piece. Each person who works on it has a particular skill that has taken years to perfect. It’s an organic and intuitive process; it’s imperative you are sure of what you are doing and secure in your craft otherwise it is reflected in your work.
Do you ever feel insecure?
Yes, when I’ve made a mistake I haven’t experienced before. In the beginning, you are unsure how to correct mistakes – e.g. a rogue hammer mark – so you seek help to correct it, and it can be a time consuming process. As you progress and learn, you can correct the mistake straight away. The more you work at it, the fewer mistakes you make because it becomes learned and ingrained in you. The process becomes intuitive.
What is the most important skill for a silversmith to possess?
In relation to your profession, what are you most proud of?
My colleagues. And the fact that I work in a dying profession that is kept alive by the talents of skilled artisans. I respect this a lot, and think it is such a shame it’s no longer fashionable to own silverware. I love the challenges and the problem solving – and the honour in the profession. The chasers or polishers who take over the pieces I’ve been working on can only do as good a job as I have done on the piece I give them. It’s so important for me to deliver perfection. I set the bar high. It doesn’t get any better than the point of departure, so I need to have some sort of perfectionist approach to deliver the optimal product. The most important for me is there are no limits. It’s a question of just doing it.
Are there any other areas of your trade you would like to work with?
I would love to work in gold; with things that combine professions within the trade; revive traditional methods to challenge not only myself but also the perception of the profession and the concept that we no longer can create the masterpieces of the past. I want to make the most challenging pieces possible – the ones where people say it’s too hard to do, I want to prove them wrong. I often ask for the wilder, bigger, crazier pieces, and my boss tries to give me these to test and perfect my skills, and where I have to prove my worth each time.
If I know the techniques exist, I can then go on to master them. I can see what I need to learn to do so. I actively seek these things out to challenge myself and my abilities in order to excel at my profession. If there’s something you’re good at you tend to focus more on that. If there’s something you’re not so good at, you tend to avoid it. It’s hard to force yourself to learn something you find difficult or tedious to do, so when you’ve spent 1,000 hours honing your filing skills and it’s become routine it’s not so inspiring, but it all forms part of the finished piece, so there’s professional pride at stake.