From the Silversmith's Hand
Their wares are often overlooked - and buyers don't know what they're missing. CRAFTS
TO be a silversmith may strike the average person as an anachronism in this age of high-tech widget-making. But there is a small band of contemporary silversmiths across the country diligently hammering away in their workshops, using many of the same painstaking techniques that Paul Revere did. The trouble is, the handmade wares get lost in a market flooded with mass-produced sterling - and the buying public doesn't realize what it's missing.
That's what irks Jeffrey Herman, a Rhode Island silversmith who is standing up for his fellow artisans, most of whom are too wrapped up in their work to adequately publicize it beyond the collectors and designers who often commission it.
To educate people about handmade silver and the range of forms it assumes, Herman has joined forces with the 93-year-old Society of Arts and Crafts, in presenting ``Reflections of the Past and Present: Contemporary American Silver,'' a exhibition of hand-wrought holloware and flatware that throws a spotlight on a dying art form.
The show assembles for the first time the work of 29 modern silversmiths who produce everything from traditional punch bowls to abstract sculpture. They've come together as the Society of American Silversmiths (SAS) - the first organization of its kind, Herman says. A total of 48 juried silversmiths belong to the group, founded last year by Herman himself.
Many of today's most talented silversmiths aren't even listed in contemporary arts and crafts books. ``That's why a lot have agreed to join the society - just to leave their mark somewhere,'' says Herman, working at the show.
Gleaming in their cases are clever candle-holders, traditional gravy boats, zany teapots, ceremonial chalices, flasks and flower vases, and stunning hollow forms serving no purpose other than to intrigue the viewer. Price tags on the items are likewise varied, from $250 to $50,000.
``This is going back to our roots, bringing us full circle,'' says Stephanie Ehret, director of the Society of Arts and Crafts' Arch Street gallery, where the works are on display through Nov. 9. In the early 20th century, the Society of Arts and Crafts exhibited the works of silversmith masters such as Arthur Stone, George Gebelein, and Porter Blanchard, when silver was a major force in the US arts and crafts movement.
Today, however, less than five percent of silver production is done by independent silversmiths, says Michael Brophy, who has several pieces in the show. In his studio in Watertown, Mass., he fashions clocks, boxes, and bowls using the hundreds of rare and expensive tools filling the shelves. Though many of his items are strikingly modern, he uses traditional techniques.
``Most silversmiths today are machine operators and assemblers,'' says Mr. Brophy in an interview at his shop, referring to Gorham and other large companies. Brophy studied in England, where the age-old skills of silversmithing are highly valued. Whenever machines enter in, he says, ``you have to compromise and cut down on the details.''
Most people looking for a wedding gift or anniversary present, says Herman, think that the sterling they see in jewelry or department stores is all that's available.
``You won't see a huge variety of one-of-a-kind pieces there,'' he says. ``If any jeweler wants to stay in business, he has to sell things that have mass appeal.''
But a hand-made sugar bowl or objet d'art, in addition to being unique, is more likely to maintain or increase its value over time, says Herman, who specializes in silver repair and restoration at his home in Cranston, R.I. ``It has a look that generally shows more caring and extra effort.''
In ``The Orator,'' featured in the show, master Heikki Sepp"a has fashioned sterling into a dramatic one-foot-high teardrop shape. On such a large piece, with its brilliant chrome-bumper surface, it is extremely difficult to hide one's mistakes, Herman says.
Though women were historically denied training as silversmiths, seven out of the 48 members of the SAS are women, including 35-year-old Susan Ewing, who has her own shop and teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
``I'm a 20th-century silversmith going into the 21st century,'' says Ms. Ewing reached by phone. Her two fanciful teapots, with their striped angular handles and polka-dots add wit and playfulness to the show. ``What you see in the stores are mostly 18th- and 19th-century designs,'' she adds. ``They sell to popular tastes, which are still pretty far behind where modern design is.''
She does some sculpturing in copper and brass, but silver has special qualities. ``I like the coolness of it - the hard edge you can get which is similar to steel - yet you can also create great warmth through surface treatments.''
Though there is stylistic variety in the field of silversmithing, Herman is worried that the fine techniques of the trade will soon be lost. The median age of SAS members is 50, and not enough design schools are equipped to teach the necessary skills, he says.
``A lot of it has to do with our culture,'' adds Ewing. ``Silver is one of the most tedious mediums you can work in. You either have the discipline or you don't.'' The founding the Society of American Silversmiths, she says, does meet the need for artisans to communicate with one another.
``It's a heritage I'd like to see saved,'' says Herman. ``The Japanese have their national treasures - their swordmakers, silversmiths, people who work in clay. They're revered, and you can't go above their standard. Why can't we have that?''
For more information, contact the Society of American Silversmiths, PO Box 3599, Cranston, R.I. 02910