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Diary of a Silversmith

Tusk Silver Trophy

A local engraver to us, Steven Alexander, asked if I could fit an additional silver plate to the above mentioned trophy. Commissioned in the 1950's it had run out of space to engrave further winners names. Quite a bizarre object, it appears to be made from a hollowed out top end of an elephants tusk with the handle made of what looks like Rhinoceros horns. A glass bottom enabling it to be used as a mug. The making of an additional plate was quite tricky given that the only means I had of fixing it to the tusk was dress making pins which although good at driving into the wooden plinth. They really were reluctant to hammer into the ivory tusk. Pilot holes needed to be drilled but this in itself was problematic as the material was so hard and the drills so fragile being only 0.4mm in diameter. A three feet diameter arc had to be scribed onto the silver sheet prior to cutting it out. This enabled it to fit snugly onto the slightly tapered tusk. I got there eventually! It took just short of a day to do but I had only quoted one and a half hours C'est la vie!  

Precious Metals - Conservation

As a Silversmith I am, and always have been, careful not to waste any silver or gold which I handle on a daily basis. In common with others in the industry, we cut, file, saw, grind, turn and polish precious metals. All these processes could lose some of the precious metals never to be seen again. In our case the clean cutting we collect to use at a later date for our silver castings. The less clean (which could have some oil or dirt present) is collected and returned to our supplier for melt and assay. The fine silver element of this is then credited to our metal account with our supplier. Obviously there is a final very dirty category. Sweep. This is as it sounds floor sweep, contents of the hoover bag! and polishing residues. this bulky category is again returned to our supplier where it is first burnt to reduce its volume and the ash processed to remove the silver. There is no doubt a very tiny amount may escape our vigilance. A few grains walked out on the sole of the shoe, but by and large we trap the vast majority of what we buy in. Why? 1 It is expensive 2 I have my environmental head on I would like to see this done by every business and home globally. If all commodities were made valuable in money terms as well as resource terms nothing could or should be wasted. As once they are condemned to landfill sites they are almost impossible to recover. In my company and home every grain of so called waste has its own bin. Every orange pip, apple core or potato peeling goes onto the compost heap. Every tin, bottle and newspaper goes into the council recycling box and the remainder to landfill - not a lot I am pleased to say. However most of landfill is produced from unnecessary packaging. Society must return to the old days of less or no packaging.  When I was a lad all bottles and jars had deposits and were returned. Biscuits and eggs went into brown paper bags which went on the compost heap. Another of my gripes is the use of insecticides in agriculture - but I digress this maybe the subject for another blog!  

A Hallmark request

A few weeks ago I had an unusual request from a repeat customer. Did we have in stock something suitable for a belated Christening present? But it had to have the date letter 2015. I had a rummage through the safe and found three items and offered him a choice. One of the items was a Directors Whisky Decanter. We both agreed that this was a rather unusual Christening present but probably more useful (in later life of course!) than a baby rattle for example which is only useful during the early life of a child. On the other hand it could be passed from generation to generation??? However a Whisky decanter it was!  

Britannia Silver

I needed to order a considerable amount of standard (sterling) 925 silver sheet recently. After I placed my order the supplier informed me that they had insufficient in stock to fulfill my request. An alternative was to take some of it in Britannia silver (958). It is many years since I have used Britannia but to use it on this occasion would solve the problem. I knew it was softer so it should be easier to spin – in theory. Well this was the case. It was nice to spin, it seemed to be a more “slippery” metal than standard (925 copper alloy) which can feel a bit “gritty” and need lubricant. The Britannia needed less. It also “laid down” on the chuck quicker. The down side was that because it “laid down” quicker it was stretching less meaning it came up shorter on height. Ooops! Now what? 20 bases all a bit short. Luckily I had spotted this on an interim spin (draft) and was able to put it onto another chuck where I was able to gain a little height. Phew! Nearly got into trouble there but otherwise a very nice alloy to work with. Britannia Silver 958.   Co-incidentally, this was the main English Standard between 1697 and 1720 and because of its softness (in relation to 925 standard) it had to be reinforced in areas of weight stress, for example on a tea pot where the fittings attach. Spout, handle,foot and knob. This reinforcing was often decorative and termed “cut card work” and is quite distinctive. The said reason for this change was thought to be that it would defer the clipping of silver coins for the subsequent use of a source of bullion as the metal stolen could not be used without the addition of pure silver which was in short supply at that time. Just a few interesting facts about the life of a silversmith I thought you may like to read.

Silver Bangles

A lady phoned a couple of weeks ago and said that she had found us on the internet. She had been going round the local shops in the Brentwood area trying to find someone who could make 2 silver bangles for her two daughter’s birthdays. Colin, who took the call, suggested that she bring in her example of what she wanted. She arrived. Not having been party to these telephone conversations I had to explain that I was a silversmith and what she needed was a jeweler. She said “what is the difference?” I tried to explain that that there can be big differences between jewelers and silversmiths, for example silversmiths do not normally work to such small sizes, neither do they know how to make settings for stones etc. She then showed me a bangle that she was wearing. Quite an ornate one, obviously from the Far East as it had elephants embossed around the outside. She said that what she wanted made for her daughters was something much simpler. I started warming to the idea and told her that I usually only make jewelry for friends and family. She was such a pleasant woman that I decided she fitted the criteria and yes I would make them for her. They are now made and have gone to the hand engraver to inscribe her personal message inside each one. From there they will pay a visit to the London Assay Office to be tested and hallmarked. Finally they need to come back to our studio to be polished and boxed. Another satisfied customer hopefully!      Since writing the above the first of the bangles has been presented. Mother and Daughter very happy!

Silversmith's Speaker Stands

My training and life as a Silversmith have also given me the basic skills and confidence to tackle other projects. For example, when we bought a new sound system and television. It came supplied with contemporary light wood speakers. Co-incidentally the same colour as our Ercol furniture. Unfortunately we could not find suitable wooden stands for these speakers that would also match our furniture. I though it would be quite an enjoyable experience to make a pair. First I did a scale drawing, then sourced some maple wood (which is nice to turn) from our stocks and cut out the necessary blanks, two circles and a long baton.  Next I turned the three component parts, top, base and stem as seen in the picture. I then sanded them on the lathe and Colin polished them in our polishing shop using two grades of compound until they were perfectly smooth. Lastly a coat of wax was added.     And no! I am not making any others in case anyone asks!  

Diana's second visit to JA Campbell

Bronze figurines of Diana, Greek Goddess of Love. Just before Christmas 2015 my antique friend brought in another bronze figurine of Diana by a well known French sculptor. This one had lost her bow, as had the first one. For those who are not familiar with the piece, Diana is standing on one leg on a rock, shooting a bow up into the sky. The bow actually has no strings and is made in two parts which screw onto threads either side of her left hand. The bow although stylised is basically tapered from thick in the centre and thin at the ends. It is also slightly triangular in section. The first stage after doing a scale drawing is to select some brass rod and make the taper. On the first one this was done by rolling it in stages to get the rough taper and then grinding/filing it to a smooth taper and then grind into a triangular section. This worked well but was slow. On the second one all the tapering was done by grinding and filing and was indeed quite a bit quicker. The other slow stages were making the male and female threads and soldering the triangular bow section to the round boss section. Finally aligning the bow in relation to the figure and polishing. I personally would have left the bow polished bright as it made a beautiful contrast against the dull green/bronze of the figure. However the dealer did not want it bright and intends to "patinate" it himself. Job done. A bit of variety for a Silversmith!    

How it all started

I caught the silver bug as a youngster. My Dad had served an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer working for the Bromley branch of the North Thames Gas Board. They were gas and coke producers and had to maintain their own machines and equipment. Dad rose up through the ranks to become shift superintendent at Becton Gas works. You would call him a general manager today. Dads interest in everything mechanical, chemical, historical, classical musical poetry infected me too (apart from the poetry) At a very young age I knew I was destined to make things for a living. I had taught myself to cast lead soldiers at home using mum's gas cooker and plaster of Paris. Great success! I had slight delusions of grandeur and therefore wanted to work with precious metals so Dad made some enquiries and found that the best route was to attend a one year pre apprenticeship course at an Art school. The one specializing in precious metals in the London area was the central school of arts and crafts in Holburn London. We studied there the main aspects of silversmithing such as design, engraving, chasing and obviously silversmithing itself. I was amazed how metals could be cut, shaped, joined and wrought. This has never left me and probably never will. I am 71 years old still working and still enjoying it. On my blog www.diaryofasilversmith.co.uk I have written many articles hoping to create interest in silver and steer traffic to my website. You may find it a load of waffle! I have had a relatively up market training as a silversmith (as London tends to) and therefore a not very good at doing the cheap and nasty. This means that my product often looks expensive when put alongside similar items and it has been my task over the years to explain the difference. I often when trying to put the point over use as an analogy the (cheap pair of shoes), as most people have experience of this. A recent example last week was a batch of 25 silver mounted claret jugs on which I was soldering the handles. I had the bodies lined up on one board and the handles on another. These were behind me as I was working on the forge. I was taking one of each, placing them in position in the soldering jig and soldering them together using a gas and oxygen flame. I had rather a lot on my mind at the time of varying subjects including the dithering by the customer about the engraving which was to be applied. Consequently I had not noticed that by taking the bodies all from one end of the board that it was becoming unbalanced. I had got to the last 8 when there was a crash behind me "Oh no" I thought, instantly realizing without looking behind me what had happened. They were all on the floor in a jumble with a heavy board on top of them. Fearing the worst I picked them up and proceeded to wash off the argotect (a paste coating which protects the silver from fire stain during the red hot process like soldering) in order to inspect the damage. I could not believe my luck! Only 2 had slight dents which were easily removed. All the others had escaped totally. Or was it luck? Probably a bit of each. If they had been made down to a price like so much silver is they would probably have been un-repairable. I once brought a pair of American candlesticks back to the UK to investigate why they were so cheap. It became blatantly obvious; they were so thin they needed a steel rod in the stem to make them stand up. They actually never made it back to England without getting wrecked. They had been carefully wrapped in dirty washing in my luggage. Why my love for Germany? My parents arranged for me to go on an exchange visit to Solingen just 11 years after the war. I have loved the area and people ever since and cannot resist visiting the Ruhrgebiet and the house where I stayed. All the family has since passed away. I particularly love the Ruhrgebiet for its industrial heritage as it was once the heart of Germany's iron and steel industry. Much of which has since closed but a small section has been preserved and organized into an industrial heritage route where tourists and school parties can learn about Germany’s industrial past. One place of special interest to me was an old scissor making factory which sadly closed in the 80’s after struggling for a decade due to cheap imports. The old factory has been left pretty much as it was; it even still smells the same! Some of the staff running the now museum are previous workers. I am drawn back time and time again to this fascinating area and country. I have so much respect for the German people who are so hard working and diligent. It is this background which has made me and my business the way it is. Always trying to do better, always trying not just to please but to delight the customer with the best quality designs and service possible. I try to treat my customers and people in general the way I would like to be treated myself. I make my silverware up to a standard and not down to a price. Hopefully this has not bored you too much. Goodbye for now  John Campbell Master Silversmith    

Silver Dream Conclusion

It was quite a moment when her keel touched the water for the first time. The next memorable event was to sail her the 40 odd miles from Poole to her new mooring in Portsmouth Harbour and bearing in mind I was still a bit of a novice. [More]

Silver Dream part two

In the early stages of my interest in sailing I was still learning a lot –and fast!

Our last trip ended with the dingy upside down with the mast stuck in the mud!! I had read a book on righting a capsized dingy, you just climb onto the upturned hull and pull the keel down through 180 degrees and climb aboard. This time it would have none of it (with the mast stuck firmly in the mud not suprising) Luckily a motor boat took our painter and towed us back to the bank. This was probably the last time the family came sailing in the dingy. They had been frightened and lost their confidence in me. [More]