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Diary of a Silversmith

Silver Mine Visit

I was invited to visit a silver mine museum in France by a couple of German/Canadian friends a few weeks ago - how could I - a silversmith even think of refusing! The abandoned mine, of which there are many in the Vosges Mountain area of France, has been turned into a museum. This one is quite near to Strasburg. The excursion is split into different sections, above and below ground. It starts with a film about how a silver mine was bought and then all the different workers gathered together. The next part is to take a group of people into the old mine workings, through a series of tunnels - not down a mine shaft. We were all dressed in warm jackets and waterproof capes with hoods and all topped off by a miners helmet with a light on top.It was quite cold underground around 10C I would guess and very damp with puddles on the ground. Although the floor was surprisingly level apart from a few dips where water had gathered. Some of the passage ways were very narrow and some of the taller people struggled a little. It is hard to imagine the conditions that the workers had to endure for up to 8 hours a day in candle light and very cold and damp.  After just an hour and a half it was a joy to get back to the next part of the tour which involved interactive displays where you could listen to explanations of each scene and see some of the tools used. This was followed by a final film about the different types of workers, their backgrounds and lives. They were split into three main groups, carpenters, actual mine workers and women who processed the lumps of rock into smaller chippings. The only part I felt was a bit lacking was details of how the ore was extracted from the rock which would have been of particular interest to me as a silversmith All in all it was very well done and not an expensive visit for the time we spent there (approx three hours). But it was very nice to get back in the warm car that had been parked in the sunshine. If you get the chance to visit that area I would recommend it. The narration is done in several languages via headset http://www.massif-des-vosges.com/en/90/A228000847/tellure-silver-mine-sainte-marie-aux-mines.htm Remember to wear warm clothes!!

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!    

Figurine Restoration

Several weeks ago a neighbour who is moving to Devon came across and asked if I knew where he could dispose of a pair of figurines. He had one in his hand. I recognised them as made from spelter and probably French from about 1890. They were a bit scruffy - for want of a better description. I suggested he tried the antique shop at the top of the road. He said he had not thought of that.  One of the figures was a woman with arm held aloft holding a hammer encircled with laurel leaves. That is it should have been but the arm was broken off. I offered to solder it back on for him in order to get a better price. Whilst I had the figure in my Brentwood workshop I grew to quite like this figure  and repaired it very carefully. When I saw the partner figure this was of a man standing in the stylised bow of a ship holding the ships wheel with one hand and a pennant aloft with the other . That was it I really felt I would like to have them for myself.  I asked the neighbour if we could have first refusal. He said yes but after he had obtained a more accurate valuation. Clearly this pair needed some attention to restore them to their former glory. A quick look on the internet indicated that they were French and a pair called Le Industrie and La Commerce. They will need new plinths making as the originals have had a bad case of woodworm and need new name plates attaching. More to follow after the restoration!! For now here is a picture as they look at present.

Silver Feast or Famine

How many times do you hear this phrase - Feast or Famine? Twice yesterday and if I count JA Campbell - three times. The first was our crystal engraver Monica who quoted one very busy week and then several quiet ones. The second was a fellow passenger on a train journey (someone in the "city") He said pretty much the same and then at JA Campbell. We have gone from having insufficient production during the early part of July to overdrive in the second half. An interesting order for tennis competition trophies sponsored by a national newspaper and an order for some Campbell dishes for ununknown presentation. No complaints however!!! The changing situation with the daily fix by the LME is an interesting one with no one knowing what if anything will replace it. This is an historic piece of financial theatre whereby a group of people (representatives) of banks and traders would gather together at noon each day and depending whether their firm had more buyers than sellers would raise a little flag. If the majority were raised the daily fix price would go up and the reverse if not. With the volume of silver traders now being lower there is a reduction in the number of traders being prepared to partake in the ceremony. For more information on this topic see The Times Newspaper 17 July 2014 Business section page 36 Watch this space. In the meantime JA Campbell are producing a range of silver tableware that needs to be seen to be appreciated. Have a look on my website and I am sure there is something that will catch your eye John Campbell Master Silversmith 

London Assay Office Visit

After a recent visit to the London Assay Office it has become clear that techniques have moved on in recent years since I last had a guided tour. However some things are still done in a traditional way. Hallmark related sayings that have kept going until the present day include “up to scratch” and “the acid test”. “Up to scratch” was assay office jargon for a positive result following scraping and testing. “The acid test” again jargon for the application of a tiny amount of nitric acid to a rubbing of the edge of an article onto a special small block of stone, known as the touchstone. This is from the slate family of sedimentary rock and is slightly abrasive. From the rubbing on the touchstone an experienced sampler can get a reasonably accurate idea, visually as to whether the article is what it is claimed to be. A drip of nitric acid on to the rubbing will confirm this. Some of these ancient methods are still in use today and still have a place in the assaying of precious metals. For example, although the London Assay Office is bristling with the latest technology the x-ray machine is not capable of seeing through thick deposits of silver plate, or articles with heavy subsurface contamination by other metals.  This is where the acid test comes into its own. X-ray is used much more now than ever before, especially for small articles. The readings are very accurate and show all metals identified and in what percentage. More details of how the Assay Office fits into my daily production can be found on each product page on my website. An example is shown here. Enjoy reading about how your particular pieces of silver have been handmade by John and his team in our Brentwood studio.   A new service we can offer is to actually see your item being tested and hallmarked. Please contact John on 01277 217829 if you would like to discuss this service.

Tarnish Free Silver - revisited

At breakfast this morning I noticed that the silver was in need of a polish. (I really dislike tarnished silver.) It doesn't seem long since I did it last, possibly only a fortnight.  Our kitchen diner where our every day silver lives seems to be especially susceptable to tarnish. I suspect it is the gas cooking coupled with the sometimes steamy conditions (sulpher/water vapour) This led on to thinking that if anyone invented a "genuine" tarnish free silver it would increase sales of silver considerably. Unfortunately - to date - this has not happened and maybe never will. Some years ago (8 maybe) when an old fellow college student of mine, Peter Johns discovered his tarnish resistant silver, which was subsequently produced by Thesco in Sheffield, England, I had great hopes for a transformation of sales. This I regret to say never materialised as when I laid down a sample "tarnish free" decanter top next to a normal 925 copper alloy one I was amazed and dissapointed to find that the tarnish free version of the same thing tarnished quicker than the ordinary silver. Whether it would ever have gone to the same blackness level I do not know, but certainly the first stages of tarnish happened sooner than on the ordinary.  Luckily I had stopped short of booking advertising space, promotional material, POS etc., however it was a bitter dissappointment. Then Cooksons, my precious metal supplier announced they were starting to produce a tarnish resistant silver. I organised some trial batches of various popular items. When I mentioned this to a retailer in Germany her eyes went skywards, indicating disbelief.She was right to be skeptical, this proved to be the same as the previous, plus it couldn't be handled when red hot which can be a problem for a silversmith.  Consequently I have given up looking, it looks unlikely to happen in my lifetime. There is another solution to the problem, rodium plating. Whilst being very tarnish resistant it is rather chromy in its colour. Another downside with rodium is that ever the article becomes damaged it can be difficult or sometimes impossible to repair. So in my opinion is an option not worth considering. Just continue with hand polishing with the likes of silvo, my preferred silver polish. If the tarnish is dealt with early (not allowed to get too discolored) however it is easy to buff up, using a soft cloth and no polish.  This will be effective for a couple of times after which it will start to become more stubborn and need a proper polish. This task is best done when you are not too busy, for example on a Sunday morning after breakfast, when you can do it in a more relaxed manner. You might actually enjoy the experience! It will look like new again. Note: It is worth reminding that when polishing salt grinders etc (1) to one keep shaking the cloth to remove the salt particles and (2) do not use it on another item it may spread the contamination.

Sterling Silver Hallmarking

On my website I always describe the manufacturing process in detail as I believe this is of interest to the customer. I do my best to be as accurate as posible and gets my facts right. On a recent visit to drop some items in for hallmarking at the London Assay Office I was having a conversation with my regular contact there and he asked me if I would like to have tour around the premises to see the process. I thought this was a bit starnge as I had done this many times before when I used to arrange for groups of staff from various shops to go there. I always believed that the more they understood about the process of manufacture and how the hallmarking was done would enable them to pass all this information to the customer and encourage them to buy. However it turns out in recent years the hallmarking proces has developed with technology and maybe I will have to update some of the descriptions on my website. I will be arranging a visit to view these techniques in the next few weeks. Watch this space for more details to follow!!