Expert Insights: A Conversation With a Master Silversmith

5 minute read

Silver has a long history as a prized commodity dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome as a coveted indicator of wealth and style. In 17th-century Europe, silver reached new levels of popularity and value as the growing middle and upper-middle classes began to stimulate the market, increasing the demand for beautifully crafted goods. In addition to being worn as jewelry and adornments, silver’s versatility gave the metal a unique appeal, providing utilitarian items with alluring dual-functionality. Household objects like silver serving vessels were coveted multitaskers, effectively keeping food warm while also dazzling dinner guests. Silver’s lightweight portability meant that these treasures masquerading as everyday items could be hastily removed in the event of political upheaval or imminent fire.

At M.S. Rau, our famed collection of silver is carefully curated and selected from the very finest pieces in the world. Many date to the 18th century, a period known for its legendary silversmiths whose names are recognized even today, such as Paul Storr, Hester Bateman and Paul Revere.

While it would be a dream to speak with an 18th-century silversmith firsthand, we came as close as we could in the 21st century by speaking with Preston Jones, a master silversmith at the historical reenactment of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. He kindly shared his expert insights on not only 18th-century silver production, but also the evolution of the use and craft of American silver from Colonial times to present day.

Silversmith Preston Jones Crafting a Vessel at Colonial Williamsburg Silversmith Preston Jones Crafting a Vessel at Colonial Williamsburg Photograph Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

According to Jones, early American silversmiths had a very different experience from their English counterparts across the pond. While the New World was being colonized, Europe — and particularly England — had already established a centuries-old culture of silversmithing. The industry was heavily regulated and held to meticulous standards, requiring a long period of specialized training with a master, membership in an organized guild and strict systems for crafting, measuring and hallmarking silver.

The English Silversmithing Tradition

In 18th-century England, the celebrated tradition of silversmithing was at its height. Every middle-class home possessed some sort of silver object, proudly displayed and most certainly purchased with the intention of serving guests. Silver pieces were a practical display of wealth within the home and as the middle and upper-middle classes grew, the production and popularity of silver expanded simultaneously.

For centuries, silversmithing was a trade that required years of training and a steady stream of raw materials. As technology advanced during the 18th and 19th centuries, techniques and production methods became more efficient, allowing silversmiths to create new and more intricate designs. The 18th century is considered the golden age of English silver, with the workshops of ingenious masters like Paul Storr and Hester Bateman producing masterpieces of superior craftsmanship. Still coveted by silver-lovers today, their pieces remain a focal point of fine silver collections.

Like many fine craft endeavors of the time, working with silver was a respectable profession where one could make a decent living. However, mastering the skills necessary to acquire a reliable client base was time consuming and required dedication. According to Mr. Jones, young men could join a guild and become apprentices, learning the trade from master silversmiths over a number of years. After students of the guild mastered the craft and completed their apprentice-level training, these young silversmiths would move on to work in shops producing spoons, buckles and other simple wares. It could take years to become a master silversmith, and not all had the skill to achieve such status.

Hallmarking Silver

British silversmiths employ a system of hallmarking dating as far back as the Medieval era to stamp each piece of silver. Originally used to guarantee the weight and purity of the metal, these marks also indicated provenance, including the calendar year and city of the item’s origin. British hallmarks in particular make English and Irish silver some of the most easily identifiable antiques in existence. Still used today, British hallmarking symbols change with each sovereign’s reign and the beginning of a new year. Silver hallmarks are a fascinating study, as the tiny imprints not only tell rich stories of provenance but are also beautiful.

Hallmarked London, 1777

The assayer’s mark is by far the most common silver hallmark and is found stamped on almost every piece of silver crafted indicating the purity of the ore. A common symbol is the figure of a lion indicating that the silver is sterling — 925 parts silver per thousand. Usually read in a straight line, the next stamp following the assayer’s mark identifies the city where the object was created. For example, a stamp of a lion’s head tells us that the piece was made in London. The third mark would be a lower-case letter representing the year of the piece’s make. Lastly, the silversmith would stamp the metal with their own “maker’s mark” signature identifying themselves as the designer.

The American Silver Tradition

The end of the 17th century cemented the growth and prosperity of the British Colonies in America. Silver products were imported steadily from England, opening a new and growing market across the Atlantic for English silversmiths. As towns formed and more colonists immigrated to the New World, American consumers became increasingly hungry for immediate access to silver goods. As the crafts of England and Europe took root as nascent industries in America, it became apparent that the Colonies could sustain an independent silver industry.

Threatened by American competition, the English silversmithing guild took action to limit the budding American silver industry. American Colonial silversmiths were barred from joining the English guild and their apprentices were prohibited from training in England. Established silversmith masters enjoyed comfortable lives in England and very few felt compelled to uproot their businesses and workshops for American soil. With few masters available in the Colonies, the long tradition of rigorous hands-on training under a silversmith master became complicated.

“Early American silversmithing met a set of challenges that had to be addressed: The absence of guilds, scarcity of raw materials and lack of identification system,” Jones said.

Yankee ingenuity would need to be applied to the practice of producing silver as American colonists adapted to life away from England.

According to Jones, acquiring silver became a key difficulty for colonial silversmiths. England leveled an embargo on rough material, refusing to sell colonists silver. American silversmiths were forced to melt down coins and other pieces of scrap to keep up production. Colonial silversmiths were effectively prevented from maintaining a consistent supply of quality silver, gravely impacting the level of purity Colonial American-made silver contained in comparison to English sterling. Because of the lower quality and inconsistent production of American silver, wealthy Americans would continue to patronize English silversmiths by importing silver goods to the Colonies.

The English silversmith guild banned Colonial silversmiths from using the British system of hallmarking, as well. In lieu of hallmarks, American craftsmen would commonly engrave their initials into the finished piece for identification. Even the most well-known silversmith of colonial America, Paul Revere, would mark his pieces with only his initials. One example of this is the Silver Salt and Pepper Shaker Set by 18th-century Boston silversmith Stephen Emery which bears a simple stamp of his initials. Colonial America’s less-sophisticated method of hallmarking has made identifying the provenance of early American silver much more challenging. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that makers such as Tiffany & Co. began consistently stamping silver with identifiable marks that easily date the pieces.

A Pair of Spoons Crafted by Paul Revere Previously Sold by M.S. Rau Antiques A Pair of Spoons Crafted by Paul Revere Previously Sold by M.S. Rau Antiques

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The legacy of silversmithing continued to adapt to the Colonial way of life as America established its own independent traditions. “The differences between English and American silversmithing were due more to England’s attempt to prevent a competing American market, which really only stalled its emergence,” Jones explains.

Silver is a craft that has transcended the time and place in which it was created. At M.S. Rau, we collect and appreciate the pieces created by silversmiths from both sides of the Atlantic, whether they are intricately crafted pieces by Paul De Lamerie or simple hammered spoons from Paul Revere.

 

Sources:
Hollis, and Walpole Society. “A List of Early American Silversmiths and Their Marks.” French, Hollis;Walpole Society (U.S.), Printed for the Society, 1 Jan. 1970, library.si.edu/digital-library/book/listofearlyameri00fren.

Jones, Preston. Telephone Interview. 3 August, 2019.

“Silversmith.” Silversmith : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, www.history.org/almanack/life/trades/tradesil.cfm.

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