The secret life of silver

Silversmithing is an ancient art of precision and skill which involves working with non-ferrous metals. A silversmith’s work is physical and requires patience and dexterity. The rewards are many and the results can be brilliant.

Silver bracelet1

Most of the silver mined in Australia comes from Broken Hill, known as the Silver City. It is considered a co-product in the mining industry which means that silver is mined from the earth contained within other minerals – namely lead ore, zinc, copper and gold – the main source being lead ore.

Silver is a survivor, a shape-shifter in metallic form. From the moment it is mined from the earth, it takes on different forms. As a raw material, silversmiths buy it in a variety of ways – sheet metal, granules, wire and cheneer tubing, for example. It is malleable and can be worked into different shapes for different functions.

Silver goes through many incarnations. Take silver clay, for example. It has already had a life as photographic equipment. The silver in photographic paper is reclaimed and made into a silver-bearing putty-like product that can be fired in a kiln, or even with a gas torch, to burn away the paper and water, leaving the silver in its sculpted shape.

Silversmithing in a nutshell

In essence, the craft of silversmithing involves heating the metal (annealing), cooling it in water (quenching) and hammering (work hardening) the metal while it is cold. When it no longer responds to the strikes of the silversmith’s hammer, the metal is re-annealed and quenched followed by further work hardening. It is a matter of going through this process of annealing, work hardening and re-annealing until the desired shape is reached. Blacksmithing, by contrast, involves working with ferrous metals while they are hot.

Annealing the silver spreads out the molecules in the metal providing a brief window in which the silversmith is able to hammer and work harden the metal, knocking the molecules back together, to change its shape.

Silversmithing is a subtle art, requiring hours of filing, precise measurements, meticulous sanding and polishing, and they are all time-consuming aspects of the craft. Depending on the task, working by hand often gets a better result, although motorised tools and precision instruments are also relied upon and are often the best and only tool for the job.

Workshop fundamentals

A silversmith’s workshop would generally have a jeweller’s bench which has a semi-circular shape cut out of the benchtop under which a leather apron is draped in a hammock-like shape in order to catch the tiny silver filings (lamel) that fall off during the work that is done at the bench. The leather is a soft but durable material for such an industrious workspace.

There would be a drill – called a suspension drill because the handpiece hangs down and is easy to let go of and take up again while working on each specific task – which is sometimes called a dentist’s drill because it is the same type used in dentistry. Other core tools of the trade include piecing saws, mandrels, soldering torches, pickle (a dilute sulphuric acid used to clean the flux off metal), rollers (a precision instrument that must be calibrated), vernier gauges, calipers, and draw plates.

The artistry of silversmithing

It is a slow process, which is hard on the hands, and the metal is dirty to work with. However, they are characteristics of the craft that silversmith Sonja Clark enjoys. She is a jewellery designer and one of our South Australian Living Artists. Before becoming a silversmith she studied sculpture, which suited her three-dimensional way of thinking and drawing, but she found she had no affinity for clay. She tried silversmithing and took to metal immediately. ‘When I did clay, I really thought I would like building in clay but I don’t like the feel of clay. It is the same with metal. You must enjoy the feeling of metal, and a lot of people don’t. It is certainly not a clean thing,’ she says.

Clark works in a studio above an arts supplies shop where the first floor is divided up into separate workspaces for artists. Her workshop area is about 6m x 4m and watching her work in this dedicated space is interesting as there is so much to observe – the way she applies herself to working with the metal, the many interesting tools around the room and how confidently she chooses the right tools for the task. She is focused and patient, demonstrating her mastery of the metal, moving around the workspace with purpose as she progresses through the stages of silversmithing.

She has pickle on hand for cleaning the metal. At the moment it is sulphuric acid but she wants to try a solution of vinegar and water that has proven itself as an effective alternative. The leather apron suspended below her jeweller’s bench has caught lots of lamel as she has been working. She is conscious that her metal of choice is a resource we take from the earth. She most often works with old metal, and one example of that is by saving and re-using the lamel that has collected in the apron. After a couple of years, she has enough to refine it. ‘I like to use what’s around if I can, but I am not particularly overboard. I will use new metal if I need to,’ she says.

It is a small detail that speaks volumes about the way Sonja Clark thinks, works and creates. She is resourceful in other ways, including how her ideas come to her and in sourcing interesting items to use in her work that she often finds in unexpected places. Her view of the world around her is an artist’s sensibility and she sees possibilities in all sorts of items, often repurposing them and making use of a different industry’s tools of trade.

She draws great inspiration from the art deco period. ‘I think it is all the geometric shapes. I love the architecture. I get my influences not so much from looking at other people’s jewellery or other jewellers but looking at shapes and my surroundings,’ she says.

Textures feature heavily in her work. One of the tools she uses to achieve some of her textural finishes is the freestanding rollers which allow precise measurements so that 0.6mm, for example, really is 0.6mm. Near enough is not good enough in this instance. Silversmithing is an exacting, painstaking art.

There is a tangle of blue and red sleeving on the table next to the rollers – stainless steel sleeving for car hoses, in fact – which makes an effective imprint on silver when passed through the rollers on the right setting. Clark says of her raw materials, ‘Yes, it doesn’t have to be jewellery related or traditional jewellery materials. I use a lot of steel and whatever I can find.’

Whatever she sees in the raw materials sparks an idea or the promise of an idea. In working through an idea to see it to fruition, she works in a three-dimensional way. ‘I am a collector but I am not somebody who collects things and puts them together, but I will collect things for ideas and inspiration. I am very much a three-dimensional drawer as well in drawing my ideas. I will play with shapes and things rather than sit down and draw it, even though I do some drawings. They will be sketches, thumbnail drawings. I won’t sit down and do a technical drawing and then make it like that.’ In working out her ideas in this practical, hands-on way she makes them a reality and as, she explains, ‘I resolve my idea.’

Recently she was commissioned to make some earrings for which the initial idea came from a button. The button was old, not modern-looking, but it gave her the base shape of a poppy. ‘I need to resolve it so that it becomes modern and it is not really a modern-looking thing. I will look at different shapes and different textures,’ she says of taking a germ of an idea through to the completed piece.

Another happy find is an old typewriter from a secondhand shop, the kind Remington and Royal once made, that has raised letters on the type hammers. All the hammers are now their own separate entities and function as letterpresses when the type hammer is struck into the silver with a rubber mallet, each blow leaving an impression of a letter, personalising the piece with initials, a name or a word.

The workmanship in a Sonja Clark piece is evident, clearly the result of using tools like the rollers, vernier gauges and calipers. ‘These tools are all precision tools and they all enable me to measure and then I have to use my skill to actually make a bezel with a 0.3mm surround – and to get a 0.3mm surround, not a 0.4mm or 0.5mm. That is where I guess the skill comes into it. I use these tools to measure,’ she says about carefully crafting her pieces.

For the most part, she has the right tool for the right job – more than 50 different files, for example, that can get her the exact finish she wants because of their different profiles and coarseness, as well as mandrels, a ring stretcher, a bangle stretcher, polishing mops, draw plates. ‘If you need the right tool, you need the right tool but you can sometimes adapt your tools to help you.’

Her creativity is sparked when her design leads her to learn new skills and techniques. ‘What keeps me coming back is that I do enjoy learning new techniques and, if I have to learn a new technique to resolve an idea, then I am quite excited by that. That is my challenge for that piece. Sometimes I design and have a technical limitation and I resolve it, and then I add another skill to my repertoire.’

Making the grade

All this effort and skill in silversmithing is supported internationally with standards for what constitutes genuine silver, made by a recognised silversmith. It is also helpful for consumers to know how much silver is contained in items that are for sale.

So, silver is given a number representing its millesimal fineness, known as the assayer’s mark. For sterling silver, for example, 925 denotes that it is made up of 92.5 per cent pure silver, the other 7.5 per cent being copper or other metals. Mexican silver’s number is 950, meaning it contains 95 per cent pure silver, with the other 5 per cent being copper and other metals. Fine silver (999) is 99.9 per cent pure silver, too soft for silversmithing into jewellery or other functional objects, and is mostly used as a trading commodity shaped as bullion.

Silver makes its mark

Hallmarks were devised to help identify several key aspects of a silver item: the assayer’s mark to show the purity of the silver (as mentioned above, 999, 950, 925, for example), the maker’s mark to determine whose silversmithing manufactured the item, and a mark to note the date of manufacture.

Some countries have set a purity standard for their silver as well as national marks to help identify the silver as theirs. For example, France has determined 950 to be its standard and the mark of Minerva’s head denotes it is French silver; Ireland’s standard is 925 and its national mark is a harp with a crown; and the United Kingdom has a standard of 925 and its national mark is the recognisable Lion Passant.

The ancient art of silversmithing lives on, just as silver lives on as an everlasting medium thanks to the resourcefulness of silversmiths who can give it a new lease on life and turn it into a functional or decorative item or a piece of wearable art. Silver is always hardy, always beautiful, a wealth of inspiration for the silversmiths who work their artistry on the metal and an enduring source of appreciation for its admirers.

Leanne Barrie
8 January 2015