The making of predominately silver items, such as hollowware (vessels such as bowls, cups, candlesticks etc.), flatware, household and ecclesiastical items, sculpture and regalia.
|Craft category||Precious metals|
|Historic area of significance||Sheffield (Flatware) Birmingham Small Working and Manufacturing, London Atelier Workshops and London Assay Office (The Goldsmiths’ Company) established by Royal Charter in 1327|
|Area currently practised||As above and nationally|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1000|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||10 including 5 Goldsmiths’ Company Apprentices|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
The manufacture of vessels and other ceremonial artefacts in precious metals can be traced back to the bronze age here in the UK. Grave goods and archaeological finds of fine metalwork can be seen in collections across the UK. The church and ecclesiastical silver played a significant part in the development of mediaeval silversmithing techniques and a guild of Goldsmiths’ (workers in precious metals) responsible for the Assay of Plate and overseeing their craft was established in London in 1327. This is the origin of the Hallmarking process and while today there are four Assay Offices (London, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield) in the UK today. In previous centuries guild-based Assay Offices also existed where there were significant concentrations of silversmiths and goldsmiths including places like Chester and Yarmouth.
Until the Industrial Revolution silversmithing was predominately a low volume activity with much of the work hand fabricated. The Industrial revolution saw the introduction of mass production in places such as Birmingham (Matthew Boulton’s) famous Soho Manufactory and in Sheffield where flatware and cutlery were important products. Indeed, the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices were created by Act of Parliament rather than Charter to meet the needs of local manufacturers. Use of domestic silver peaked in the 19th Century when domestic staff were viable options for the middle and upper class households. The maintenance of domestic plate being a time-consuming and repetitive process which became less popular after the decline in domestic staff after the first world war.
For much of the 20th Century silver in its many forms became the province of the Church, Ceremonial Plate and Commissions with a gradual decline in wider domestic use. The 1950/60s saw a renewed interest in design and a new generation of designer and makers came to the fore that developed successful businesses that targeted wealthier and discerning clients both in the UK and overseas.
The decline of the traditional silversmithing industry continues and it is today a shadow of its former scale in the UK. Positively, though, a new generation of designers and makers, represented by Contemporary British Silversmiths and incubated through initiatives such as Bishopsland Educational Trust and the Goldsmiths’ Centre are developing viable and sustainable businesses. They remain though, in part dependent upon the specialist craftspeople that make up the supply chain for the sector and therefore there will always be a risk for their long term sustainability if these supply chains breakdown.
- London – craft and atelier workshops, specialist craftspeople, supply chain and regalia.
- Birmingham – manufacturing, small working and regalia.
- Sheffield – manufacturing flatware and cutlery.
- Polishing / Buffing / finishing
- Engine turning
- Hammer forming
- Joining / forming
- Casting / lost wax
- Sinking / tray
- Cutlery techniques
- Anticlastic forming
- Welding / TIG
- Gem setting
- Deep drawing
- Box making
- Hinge making
- Wax carving
- Roll printing
- Tool making
- Tube making
- Press forming
- Piercing / sawing
- CNC milling
- Wire drawing
- Mokume gane
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Skills issues: Lack of craft training opportunities, disengagement by mainstream education providers at Degree level, lack of apprenticeships and other employment opportunities within the industry.
Skills issues: the closing of Polytechnic Colleges in the 90s has had a significant effect on skills within the industry.
Craftspeople currently known
Contemporary British Silversmiths (CBS) is running a three year Skills Training Programme offering skills training to mid career silversmiths. CBS found that many current silversmithing graduates do not have the skills, and many specific skills like box making, raising, flatware forging are dying out as the master silversmiths retire. The three year programme in partnership with Goldsmiths’ Centre offers free training to current silversmiths with the proviso that they pass their skills on in some format.