The making of objects in precious metals (gold, silver, platinum and palladium) for personal adornment, use in a domestic setting or other decorative purposes. See the separate entry for silversmithing.
|Craft category||Precious metals|
|Historic area of significance||London, Sheffield, Birmingham, Edinburgh (assay offices)|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Bronze Age|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1,000+ (across a wide range of disciplines under the generic title of ‘goldsmith’ – see ‘Other Information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||201-500 (see ‘Other Information’ for further details)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||1,000+ (because of the related supply chain)|
Archaeological finds suggest that gold ornaments were produced in Britain from the Bronze Age. Anglo-Saxon literature includes many vivid descriptions of gold and silver treasure, and rare survivals include objects made using casting, filigree, niello, engraving, enamelling and parcel-gilding. This demonstrates that even early goldsmiths had a wide variety of techniques at their disposal which would have required considerable skill to master, and goldsmiths’ work evidently had great social significance.
More examples of silver and jewellery survive from the Middle Ages, and other sources also help to build a picture of a thriving trade. The Goldsmiths’ Company received its first royal charter in 1327, however there is documentary evidence of an unofficial guild of goldsmiths operating in London as far back as 1179. Because of the value of the materials and the high level of technical knowledge required to work them, goldsmithing was considered (certainly by the goldsmiths themselves) as one of the elite artisanal trades. As such the Goldsmiths’ Company enforced many rules and regulations to maintain standards of quality and craftsmanship, including hallmarking.
By the late fifteenth century the display of dazzling gold and silverware in Cheapside was being noted by foreign visitors. London also became a destination for some immigrant goldsmiths – a trend which continued in the Early Modern period and included many significant Huguenot craftsmen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The continental smiths helped to drive advances in fashion and craftsmanship in gold and silver work. Other historical events – such as the reformation, the Civil War, and the introduction of tea and coffee – had an impact on the type and quantity of objects being produced. However silver plate and jewellery remained one of the pre-eminent cultural signifiers of wealth, and the number of people involved it the trade grew as the country prospered.
This proliferation meant that the Goldsmiths’ Company was increasingly unable to exercise the close supervision of the craft which had been traditional in medieval times. The industrial revolution bought further challenges to the Company, and also introduced radically new production methods. The development of Birmingham and Sheffield as centres of metalworking in the eighteenth century led them to establish their own assay offices. Some silver and jewellery was now produced in very large workshops or factories, where steam-powered flatting mills, large die-stamping machines and mechanical lathes enabled cheaper objects to be produced for a mass market. This development continued throughout the nineteenth century, with the Victorian demand for silver leading to large numbers of people being employed in the trade throughout Britain. More expensive silver and jewellery continued to be made predominantly by hand.
During the twentieth century the numbers of people involved in the craft declined considerably, as World Wars, changing tastes and globalisation all took their toll. Restrictions on materials and the co-opting of skilled jewellers and silversmiths into munitions work during the Second World War led to the trade being heavily reduced. After hostilities ceased a high purchase tax on luxury goods constrained efforts to re-establish businesses, but, in the case of silver, a more devastating blow was dealt by new social attitudes to domestic goods. For the first time in many centuries silver plate was no longer a pre-eminent status symbol as other, more modern goods became desirable.
Jewellery continued to be popular, but faced challenges later in the twentieth century as cheaper imports replaced British-made jewellery at the lower end of the market and squeezed the middle. More recently changes in higher education have reduced the number of specialist courses teaching silversmithing and jewellery making, and restricted student access to precious metals as materials.
One of the positive developments of the past 100 years has been a greater appreciation of the importance of artistry and creativity amongst individual makers and some consumers, leading to a small but important market for what has been termed ‘studio’ silver and jewellery. In recent decades fostering technical skills – both traditional and using the latest technologies – has been the subject of particular attention.
No one area has ever had a monopoly on the craft, but the presence of concentrations of goldsmiths in particular regions of the UK largely follows the arc of their prosperity and development.
London has always been the largest and most well-known centre, with the Goldsmiths’ Company gaining its first charter in 1327 and the first Assay Office established in 1478. Particular areas of London, such as Cheapside, Clerkenwell and Hatton Garden have at different times been particularly associated with the craft. Sheffield and Birmingham opened their assay offices in 1773, reflecting the growth of silversmithing in these areas linked to the industrial revolution. They are both still home to communities of silversmiths and jewellers, and regard the craft as an important part of their urban heritage. The only other UK city to have a working assay office today is Edinburgh, serving jewellers and silversmiths situated throughout Scotland. Norwich, Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Exeter, York and Glasgow have all at various times had functioning assay offices, reflecting their importance as regional centres and the presence of a sizeable number of goldsmiths servicing a prosperous community.
Today goldsmiths can be found working throughout the UK, with many located in rural areas to take advantage of cheaper workshop space, and significant urban centres include those with an assay office, with London and Birmingham being particularly important. The presence of a University with a strong goldsmithing programme can also lead to concentrations of craftspeople.
Techniques employed include: piercing, filing, soldering, forming, hammering, raising, blocking, spinning, sinking, pressing, chasing, repoussé, planishing, setting, mounting, polishing, finishing, engraving, carving, cutting, mounting, inlay, etc.
Fashion was a key part of silver and jewellery’s function as a status symbol. This meant that while there were some slight regional variations, most objects followed prevailing trends. Occasionally some regions became known for jewellery made using local materials – such as Whitby jet or Scottish ‘pebble’ jewellery in the ninteenth century.
Goldsmithing is a generic term covering a multitude of skilled and semi-skilled crafts these include:
Diamond mounting (currently viable) – 24 apprentices known in recent years.
Jewellery making (currently viable). (See the separate entry for jewellery making).
Gem setting (currently viable) – 1 apprentice known in recent years. (Also classified as a sub-craft of jewellery making).
Jewellery polishing and finishing (endangered) – 1 apprentice known in recent years. (Also classified as a sub-craft of jewellery making).
Small working (endangered) – no apprentices known in recent years.
Hand engraving – 4 apprentices known in recent years. (See the separate entry for hand engraving).
Silver spinning (endangered) – no apprentices known in recent years. (Also classified as a sub-craft of metal spinning).
Silversmithing (endangered) – 4 apprentices known in recent years. (See the separate entry for silversmithing).
Chasing and repousée (endangered) – no apprentices known in recent years.
Silver polishing and finishing (endangered) – 1 apprentice known in recent years. (Also classified as a sub-craft of silversmithing).
Medal and insignia making (currently viable) – 3 apprentices known in recent years. (See the separate entry for medal making).
Specialist die-sinking and tool making (endangered) – 4 apprentices known in recent years.
Enamelling (endangered) – no apprentices known in recent years. (See the separate entry for enamelling).
Hand burnishing (near-extinct) – 1 apprentice known in recent years.
Cutlery making (near-extinct) – 1 apprentice known in recent years.
Nb. Details of trainees are in terms of apprenticeships known to the Goldsmiths’ Company
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Changing nature of the marketplace and luxury positioning of the product
Expensiveness of raw materials
Lack of access to meaningful vocational education opportunities
Lack of awareness of job opportunities within the sector
The drive for academic outcomes in mainstream education policy
Craftspeople currently known
See the Goldsmiths’ Company Directory
The scale of the industry nationally is estimated at 30,000 employees across a range of business types from sole traders through SMEs and also in larger employers. Many skilled crafts are embedded within businesses and are not therefore visible.
The Goldsmiths’ Company currently has 37 apprentices training in a selection of the identified sub-crafts. Training is also taking place across the UK in a variety of forms with the exception of the crafts identified as near-extinct. There are no accurate national figures available but an estimate of 1 per cent of total employees circa 300 is a best guess based on our knowledge. This figure though would include trainees at all levels of competency and could include manual labour that may not necessarily lead to a craft outcome.
Culme, John David, (1977) Nineteenth century silver (London, Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd)
Glanville, Philippa, (1987) Silver in England (London, Unwin Hyman)
Reddaway, Thomas F, and Walker, Lorna E M, (1975) The early history of the Goldsmiths Company 1327-1509 (London, Edward Arnold & Co)
Schroder, Timothy Bruno, (1988) The National Trust book of English domestic silver (London, Viking in association with the National Trust)