The 21st Century Silversmith is adapted from a lecture presented at the Society of American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference on March 27th, 1998.
I hear the phrase all too often: Silversmithing is dead in this country and there's no market for my work." Well, I've got great newssilversmithing is alive and flourishing in the United States! No, I haven't been sniffing glue and living under a rock. I'm here to discuss how you as a silversmith can succeed and thrive through the next millennium. Many of you know me for being up-front, honest, intense, and very opinionated. I receive the greatest satisfaction in making positive things happen for others, and to be a resource for students, teachers, collectors, curators, silver dealers, and anyone interested in the silversmith's art. Founding the Society of American Silversmiths in 1989 was a natural progression in my desire to be a steward of this artform. My observations and opinions are not meant to offend, but to be instructive and help nurture this great legacy of ours.
We have an extraordinary silversmithing heritage in this country, and through the centuries, this heritage has gone through many changes. Paul Revere was not only a silversmith, he also rolled copper sheet and produced bronze bells in colonial times. Gorham and Tiffany brought prestige to silversmithing in this country when they participated and won awards at international exhibitions during the Victorian era. They also had the extraordinary power to dictate style. And Arthur Stone continued America's silver prominence into the turn of this century's Arts & Crafts period. We can continue this heritage as an international powerhouse with careful planning into the next century. The key to our success, and I'm sure Revere would concur, is in one word: versatility.
Many of you were on your way to design school after graduating from high school, eager to set the world on fire with your creativity and imagination. I was the school jeweler at New Bedford High in Massachusetts, traveling from class to class with my leatherette case, selling cabochon and pinky rings to students and teachers. Do you remember the idealist you were? I remember the idealist I was. I remember making my first coffeepot in my freshman year in college, thinking I was the next St. Dunstin, patron God of silversmiths. I truly enjoyed and respected my professorsHarold Schremmer and Tommy Thompsonfor the extraordinary knowledge and teaching skills they possessed.
Prior to graduating from Maine College of Art in 1981, I had been accepted to the silversmithing program at Sir John Cass School of Art in London. Unfortunately, the school didn't qualify for a US loan, so I was stranded here. But, it was actually a blessing. Though the summer I graduated I could only find a production diamond setting job, I was able to find something more in line with my design and silversmithing skills. I had called Gorham Manufacturing that same summer to see if there was an opening. I spent just over two years there, gaining more knowledge about manufacturing and high tolerances then I would have in England. Plus, I was paid to learn! I was a designer, sample maker, and technical illustrator, which added to my foundation as a silversmith. I found that concentrating on making working drawings for objects I created in school helped me immensely at the drafting table. Since Gorham was, and still is, a very traditional company, I became frustrated that so few of my contemporary holloware and flatware designs became part of their line. I remember making one of my flatware patterns in stainless steel, having to hold tolerances to within .002 of an inch, and giving the piece a red rouge finish! To this day, that fork stands as a powerful lesson in elevating my skills as a silversmith. After just over two years at Gorham, I felt it was time to move on and immediately found an opening at Pilz Limited, also in Providence, where I created mass-production ecclesiastical holloware and did some specialty silver work for Steuben. Here, I was also introduced to the world of restoration and conservation, my chosen specialty to this day.
How did I land the
position at Pilz? The company owner noticed I trained under Schremmer
and worked at Gorham, and was convinced I possessed the technical
skills needed to sit right down at the bench and start making money
for the company from day one. After about seven months of working in
an unhealthy environment, I ventured out on my own in 1984. By now,
you may be thinking that Herman is nothing more than a self-promoter,
and what does all of this has to do his talk on The 21st Century
Silversmith. Much of my experience has dealt with the needs of the
public and how these needs have been changing, not only for the past
20 years, but throughout this century and projecting into the next.
You see, I've kept my options open and haven't pigeon-holed myself
into thinking that if I couldn't make a living creating only
one-of-a-kind pieces, I would have to try to find a teaching position
or make those one-off's and wait tables to support my idealist
attitude. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely! By the way, I
have no problem with those smiths who would just assume wait tables
and make only one-offs, if thats truly want they wish to
do. I am concerned when waiting tables is used as an excuse for not
being able to find enough work.
The big silver companies are moving away from custom work, preferring to market their mass-produced money-making designs. Who's taking over their specialty work? The smaller silver companies, contractors, and us.
Old Newbury Crafters has been around for a long time, and you may be interested in knowing that their primary business is forging flatware. They have four silversmiths, and that's all they do, all day long. Some have been employed for over 35 years, starting their careers as apprentices there. These guys can crank out a dozen handwrought teaspoons per day. They have forearms that look like tree trunks! They also provide reproduction services and market their line primarily through finer jewelry stores.
Are you aware of the potential gold mine waiting for you at country and yachting clubs? Find out who the clubs' presidents are, and make a presentation. And, if you have the opportunity to see their trophy case, check for dents and tarnishthose pieces may need your attention. You say you're not interested in restoration and conservation! By all means, send them my way!
When I was in school, I made a sailing trophy for an individual who circumnavigated the globe. The trophy required extensive engraving. I located an engraver, who, by the way, engraves the 14 karat gold Kentucky Derby Trophy each year. On the way to his shop, I met the owner of a small company doing contract work for Tiffany. This was a one-man shop. That was 18 years ago. Today, that company has over 100 employees with their own line of sterling holloware, and continues to do contract work. If you can come up with a great design for Tiffany's line, you, too, can jump on their gravy train. There's plenty of work out there folks.
If you're only looking for one-off work in holloware, flatware, and sculpture, you'll have to do a lot of looking until you're established. If you want to make at least $50 per hour producing your own designs in quantity as well as being a resource for other's designs, you'll have all the work you can handle for the rest of your life. Does that surprise you? We're not taught to think this way in art school, but those of us who are professional silversmiths know there's an astounding amount work out there. This is one road to travel if you want to eventually be recognized for your own one-of-a-kind work. Silversmiths, like Leonard Urso and John Marshall, are very fortunate to have had their outstanding work appreciated early on by the few wealthy collectors who truly search out beautifully crafted silver. These silversmiths, among a handful of others, are the exceptions.
Most of you feel independent in school, but when kicked out into the real world, for some of you, it may actually be more comfortable working in the industry being creative, receiving a steady pay check, great benefits, and working with others. There's no sin in that.
Teaching for Your Student's Success
Though art school is a place to experiment and develop personal styles, it must also act as a strict trade school. Learning to become a competent silversmith requires a thorough knowledge of the medium's working characteristics and possibilities. I quote John Marshall: "I find myself working more conceptually now on my pieces and less involved with the craft, confident that my hands will perform as a craftsman." That's a very powerful statement from a silversmith who's known for his exceptional design and technical skills.
As most of you know, I preach technique. As a student, you should expect to graduate with confidence in the basic skills of soldering, polishing, forming, raising, hinge making, and fabricating. If you can't be the master of every technique, at least master the basics. When you perfect one technique, it will help you look at your work with a more critical eye. If you teach, for a first soldering class, have your students cut 20 strips of copper two inches long and solder 10 sets together. If, in this introductory class, you notice a student removing excess solder with an auto body grinder, that's okay, it's part of the learning process. If that individual is still having this problem as a junior, maybe it's time to suggest changing their major. Quite simply, if you have a good sense of design, can create what you enjoy with your two hands, are open to options, and have a good sense for business, there's no question you will be a successful silversmith. Learning and perfecting as many hand processes as you can while in school will make you a more competent craftsperson. After all, how may of us can afford plating tanks, power hammers, or expensive design programs for the computer right after graduating? Learning how to file a graceful curve with no dog legs down a 12" piece of sheet metal is an art. Technique is indeed an important part of design.
SAS receives many applications for Artisan consideration. What we occasionally see, for example, are beautifully designed candle holders that are constructed with metal that is too thin to withstand everyday use; this is a technical issue. As a silversmith, you must also be an engineer and understand the intended use of your products.
There are some very basic design principles to consider when producing a utilitarian object. First and foremost, it must be functional. Tea and coffeepots must be easy to clean. They must pour easily without dripping, and, if an object is to hold a hot liquid, an insulating material must be used to protect the handle from getting hot. Spouts that don't allow liquid to fully drain back into the pot can lead to a cruddy build-up. I know most of what I'm saying sounds painfully obvious, but much of what I've seen coming out of design schools do not possess these qualities. Do you want to confront a liability suit for deathly sharp fork tines?
Teaching today in America bares little resemblance to our European counterparts. Many European schools have specialists in virtually every facet of our field. Experts in chasing, spinning, box making, engraving, even polishing, help to make students well rounded. Unfortunately, in this country, tight department budgets don't allow for extended staffs So, it's the responsibility for a few instructors to possess a great deal of knowledge. Considering the American system, I think the teaching community as a whole is doing an admirable job.
Those of you who encourage freshmen to hide firescale under a fine silver or plated finish, if that's not their intent, shouldn't be teaching. Stop and think about it; you as a teacher have just taught your students to hide a problem. You say the student only likes file finishes? Too bad! Teach them how to produce a perfect mirror finish without firescale or drag lines, then let them go to town with whatever finishes they like.
If you don't teach your students how to be critical of their own work, they'll always think that whatever they make will be acceptable. If you inspire your students to take pride in what they create, you'll produce silversmiths who will consistently strive for excellence in their work.
Your students may think you're a task master today, but they'll soon understand it was in their best interest. You may even end up on their Christmas card list! Though I never felt my professors were overbearing, they certainly demanded my best. For jewelers, it's easy to hop on the phone and call a finding's supplier to order a Tiffany setting. When that student is out of school, how will he or she handle a customer who walks into their studio with an odd-shaped stone that will require a handmade setting? There's bound to be protest when students argue that you're infringing on their artistic freedom. It's very easy to graduate students to the next grade without first learning step one. We're in an age of immediate gratification. File finishes are certainly easier to learn than applying a high polish.
Some may say after graduating: "Making it big in the art world should be immediate since I produce beautiful work; collectors will search me out." That's an incredible fallacy. If your work is outstanding, and you don't possess the skills to promote that talent, you will forever struggle.
Hal Scremmer told me a story. When he was in Schwabisch-Gmund Germany on a Tiffany scholarship, it was mandatory to take a course on how to make your own maker's mark. After spending hours engraving and carving his design in a steel punch, the professor took one look at his hard work, and with one swift stroke of his file, he obliterated Hal's efforts and told him to do it over. This is the European system which I whole-heatedly endorse. Hal went on to receive certificates in both silversmithing and jewelry making, a feat very few individuals have attained. With his schooling under British-trained Joseph Sharrock at the Museum School in Boston, and his superb design and technical training learned in Schwabisch-Gmund and Pforzheim, Hal can create virtually anything in precious and non-precious metal.
I've been known to call Artisan members and read them the riot act because they had submitted pieces to SAS exhibitions with unsightly file marks, drag lines, even firescale. One member, who shall remain nameless, had a distinguished teaching career at a highly respected design school. He had always been told his work was wonderful. But this silversmith probably received mostly praise, and little criticism. When contacted about the drag lines, the individual said no one had ever mentioned there had been a problem. Another Artisan had a piece with file marks under the cover of a coffeepot. The exterior looked great, but the file marks made me cringe. When called, the individual had the nerve to say "what's the matter, no one will see it under the cover." If you expect a collector to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on your work, it better be beautifully executed. And, as I always tell our members "if you wouldn't buy your own piece, don't put it in an SAS show or sell it.
We all read about it in newspapers and magazines: High school students who read on the 3rd grade level, or who can't read at all. You see, without a solid technical and design foundation, a good silversmith will never develop into a great silversmith. That's not only true for silversmiths, it's holds true for every profession. Teachers must stick their heads out of the classroom more than occasionally to take a hard look at what the rest of the metals world is doing to support itself and what the public is buying. Most teachers have the luxury of making purely speculative pieces. Think about it; those of you who hadn't found a teaching position that pays a yearly salary with benefits, even free e-mail and postage privileges, what would you be doing today? This can lead to a very narrow perspective regarding other options in our field.
I'm in no way demeaning the teaching profession. Schremmer and Tommy Tompson were outstanding professors, and can't I imagine receiving a finer education. And there are certainly outstanding silversmithing programs around the US: The University of Washington, RIT, Indiana University, San Diego State, Miami University, and Bowling Green State, among others. I feel that the US is still very strong in the design area, but I can see that if we don't uphold that same high standard for technique, the quality of our work will suffer. Perhaps one reason there are so many specialized workshops around the country is that many degree-granting programs are slowly getting watered down.
If you're a teacher who doesn't know how to produce a flawless finish on a piece, or make a square box, it's your responsibility to your students to either perfect those techniques yourself or bring in a specialist to teach a class. If you teach your students to produce a perfect finish, with no drag lines or firescale, it will be much more beneficial than teaching only how to produce a file or Scotch-Brite finish. If you graduate a student who can't polish, and that individual ends up teaching, those students may forever be handicapped in that technique. I've witnessed metals programs where the teacher either retired or died, only to have a less qualified instructor take over.
The full-time teaching community, in general, also has the luxury of being able to take as much time as necessary to create their own work because they don't have to be competitive. In colonial times, it was the silver that was that was the most expensive part of an object, today, it's the labor that goes into that object. If these teachers were full-time silversmiths, they would be forced to develop techniques that would make them more efficient. If a student takes a semester to produce a vase, has their productive time been put to good use? Are they using a #6 file when they should be using a #2? Are they using 1200 grit paper when a fast cutting compound might be quicker, and the results would be identical? After completing a piece, do you meet with the student to discuss if the piece could have been made more expeditiously? Of course, only with experience can a silversmith's production time improve. But, if teachers were to actually critique their own work to see if developing new techniques or work habits would improve production time, that would have a great impact on the work habits of their students.
The teaching community should also keep abreast of the latest technology. I've started using three new polishing and buffing compounds for sterling that have replaced my traditional bobbing, tripoli, and red rouge. For heavy cutting, I use a JacksonLea compound called TS-35. [I have since discovered and changed to T-2 which is more agressive.] For lighter cutting I use Quickwash. [I'm currently using TS-35, and continue to use Quickwash if I want a slightly less agressive cut, but require more color.] And in place of red rouge, I prefer C-3568 alumina compound which is healthier, produces more consistent results, leaves no rouge burn, can be used on other metals and plastic, and, is less expensive. Red rouge is made with red iron oxide, the same mineral that rusts out steel solvent tanks. These Jackson Lea compounds don't clog up your buffs and are very dry, so you'll need to use a good dust collector. [For distributors of these compounds, please contact JacksonLea, 75 Progress Ln., Waterbury, CT 06705, 203/753-5116.] It's also very easy to see the metal through these compounds as you buff. This is just one of many advances I've discovered, partly due to the Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths Expo held in Providence each year. This year it's being held May 17 through the 19th. That's my technical tip of the day. For more tips, check out our ShopTalk page at silversmithing.com.
I know professors who actually think that if you don't teach or are making only one-off pieces, you're "selling out." SAS has members who are self-taught, do outstanding work, and make a very good living. Isn't that ultimately what every silversmith wants? Just because they may make some limited edition pieces that don't always sell for thousands of dollars, doesn't mean they're not artists.
After graduating, you'll probably be doing whatever it takes to succeed. That doesn't necessarily mean that you won't be creating your own designs. You may end up working for someone, and taking a portion of that money to produce what you would like. Or, like me, specialize in restoration and conservation. By the way, I make $80 an hour. I charge $50 an hour for one-of-a-kind work and product development. And, when so inclined, I take a portion of that money and put towards a speculative piece which I make for SAS exhibitions among other occasions. I'm a strong believer that the more versatile you are, the more opportunities you will have to succeed in the next millennium. Here again is the need to learn technique while in school. Though I also stress design, without technical knowledge, how can you produce anything you can imagine?
If you're a serious student silversmith, make tracks to your local library and delve into as many books on silver history as you can. You'll find valuable lessons in design styles and functionality that will compliment your silver training while in school.
This is indeed a world of immediacy. I have a younger brother who is the head of nuclear cardiology at a Rhode Island hospital. Do you think for a moment that he was handed this position right out of medical school? Of course not. Very few of us here today have the innate talent of being able to market ourselves directly out of school and be able to only produce one-of-a-kind silver. How are you going to sell those $5,000 coffee pots if you live in North Dakota, and your collectors live in New York or LA? We all have to pay our dues in one way or another. But that's not necessarily bad! Just think of what you'll learn along the way and how those experiences will only enhance your career.
One of the best resources for craftspeople is The Crafts Report. If you truly want to make a living from your art, this monthly magazine offers practical information and instruction on all facets of craft business management, pricing your work, tax issues, health and safety concerns, photography, current trends, and interviews with craftspeople who share their successes. For only $29 per year for 12 issues, The Crafts Report is a must for all of us who want to make a business out of our art.
The Importance of Documenting Your Work
I've heard from many metalsmiths that documenting their work is too expensive. There are two options here. The first option is to learn how to photograph your own work. You are welcome to download from our Web site at silversmithing.com: Cynthia Eid's "Photography for Metalsmiths." Cynthia has perfected the technique of photographing reflective objects at low cost and with very little equipment.
The second option is to have your work professionally photographed, though time constraints may prohibit it if you're on a tight deadline. Here's where the expense issue is nullified. If you are currently charging, say, $40 per hour as your shop rate, building in another $5 per hour can be easily absorbed without pricing your work out of the market. The first option of photographing your own work is certainly preferable, simply because of time constraints. Whether its Cynthia's guide or videos on photography, being able to photograph your own work is well worth the time it will take to perfect the technique.
Fax Machines and E-mail
One of the most useful pieces of equipment today, and absolutely essential in the 21st century, isn't found on your workbench, it's in your office, or at least it should be. Fax machines can be purchased for under $150, which will allow you to communicate with not only your current customers, but potential customers as well. You can quickly send agreements back and forth, send them working drawings, make changes immediately, and fax photographs of pieces you think the collector may be interested in. Bill Frederick, a 76-year-old Artisan member, bought his first fax machine a couple of years ago. Within two weeks, he was able to communicate via fax with a customer in Chicago and her fiancee in California. He was able to finalize a wedding band design within a couple of hours. Those of you who are paranoid about receiving mountains of advertising garbage from telephone companies and magazines via fax , your concern is unfounded. I've had a fax machine since 1990, and I receive an average of only four "garbage" faxes a week, and that's only because I advertise my dedicated fax number in trade journals, in all SAS printed material, on our Web site, and other sources. You don't have to post your fax number on every utility pole on the planet, just give the number to prospective clients and business associates. Fax machines are simply too valuable to overlook as a business tool in this age of immediacy. If SAS receives a request for pricing on a design that must be attended to the same day, only those Artisans in the referral service with fax machines will be contacted. Today's busy economy simply can't wait days anymore.
If you have e-mail, check your mail box daily. Those individuals who want your work and contact you in this way, expect you to reply quickly. This is what e-mail is all aboutimmediacy. It's also the only way to dramatically cut your international telephone bill, and the service starts at under $10 per month.
The Web is still in its infancy, though it's gaining in popularity at a rapid rate. You'll find that most people are using it for research, with very few buying expensive contemporary silver. Antique sales are blossoming, as well as on-line auctions. The SAS home page receives an average of 40 visitors per day. Those visiting are generally metalsmiths, collectors, antique dealers, and curators. There's something for everyone on our site, from silver care issues, books on silver, workshops, schools, and technical information. As for my personal Web sites which cover silver restoration and conservation, silver care products, and recruiting, the restoration site brings in the most visitors. In fact, my two largest customers found me on the Internet, and it's now my primary form of advertising!
[I then showed slides of work produced by the following Artisan members]
For about $150, a black and white brochure will make a huge impression on a perspective client. Write an artist statement and very brief resume. Speak about your strengths and keep everything in the first person, otherwise you'll come off looking pompous. There's nothing worse than hyping your work as though it's being hyped by another source. A head shot or photo of you working at the bench, along with featuring your work, will have a phenomenal impact, especially since there are very few silversmiths producing holloware, flatware, and sculpture in this country. Send these brochures to jewelry stores, galleries, and antique dealers. Bring them to craft shows, and don't be stingy handing them out, you never know in whose hands that brochure will eventually end up. And don't be offended if you send a brochure to someone who doesn't reply right away, it may be months, even years that may pass before they call you for that 5-piece tea set! Many people simply collect information for future use.
Pricing Your Work Accurately
When you're approached by someone interested in your work, the first two questions you should ask is what's their budget, and when do they need it. It doesn't make sense to put a lot of design time and research into their request until you have a firm grip as to their exact needs. If they require an item next week, and you currently have two months worth of work ahead of you, the only option you have is to get your silver catalogs out and try to match up their need with the appropriate item. I'll be discussing this option later.
To accurately price your work when receiving a commission, it's helpful to document the amount of time it takes to perform various tasks, especially if it can be done while still in school. If you can use a timer when raising, planishing, fabricating, buffing and polishing, you'll have a very valuable reference that will help you price future projects more accurately.
In my travels, I have found major problems with silversmiths and design school industrial hygiene. I know, you've heard it all before. But the message obviously isn't getting through. I interviewed one of our senior Artisans in 1996, who demonstrated an ingenious way to apply flux to his holloware, and that method was to use an industrial paint sprayer connected to an air compressor. He had ventilation, but the force and amount of flux emitted was so profuse, the vent couldn't handle the volume, and I had to head for cover. Solve Hallqvist died of cancer soon after my interview. Was the flux or other careless process the cause of his death? Nobody knows, but it certainly wasn't healthy. It angers me, because Solve was a close friend and outstanding silversmith.
I feel compelled to wave a red flag and warn everyone here, that this type of neglect is indeed a health hazard. If you teach, it's your responsibility to inform your students as to the hazards of working with metal. This must be the first topic discussed with every new metalsmithing student. I've visited numerous metalsmithing departments and have witnessed inexcusable work habits, not only with students, but teachers as well. This should be the age of awareness, but from what I've seen, there's an alarming degree of complacency and indifference out there. I wasn't taught the dangers of inhaling fluxes, pickle vapors, or toxic dusts in school. I was taught to use safety glasses, period. But what about protection when polishing or using abrasives while working at the bench? Dust masks simply aren't enough protection; respirators must be used. And that goes double when at your polishing machine. I see in print and in the classroom, metalsmiths who solder directly over their work. Oh, I know we all say flux is just a little irritating. Think again, that stuff's cumulative. And what about metal fumes emitted when your work is overheated? Get in front and at eye level of your work when soldering, and, if you teach, your school must supply adequate ventilation for your students. When I was in school, I felt as though I would live forever. I didn't realize I was being careless because I wasn't taught certain safety practices, and that same ignorance followed me through Gorham and Pilz. I remember Tommy Thompson, my professor in Portland, who never wore safety glasses when soldering and was forced to use artificial tears because his tear ducts dried out!
Dust collectors for metalsmiths are very expensive, normally starting at around $1,000. Every student thinking about what mom and dad can buy for them as a graduation present, should seriously think about a dust collector rather than asking for a stereo system or tickets to Maui. I say this because very few of us can ever find the resources or put money aside specifically for what many feel is an extravagance. My dust collector gives me incredible peace of mind.
If you don't have proper ventilation where you solder, at the very least, wear a respirator. I wear one even with local ventilation! Ductwork runs from my dust collector to my bench, belt sander, disk sander, small buffer, large buffer, drill press, and bandsaw. I use my pickle cold because I don't feel as though my vent has enough pull. I'm confident I'm doing all I can within my finances to safeguard my health.
These aren't colonial times; there's an abundance of information in print, in video, and on the Internet to help you work safely. If you're a teacher who doesn't possess the knowledge to train your students, read up on safety or get help immediately. If you're a student who hasn't received adequate safety training, demand it from your teacher.
Markets for Your Product
Assuming you're technically proficient with basic silversmithing skills, what are your options in the marketplace? There are actually many opportunities, providing you're willing to be versatile. Keep in mind that expensive, out of the norm silver is like high-priced clothing. When you see a fashion show featuring the world's top designers, you see some pretty outrageous designs. You tell yourself "I wouldn't be caught dead in that thing." Do you think the majority of those designers make their money selling only those types of clothing? Of course not; they have lines of more mainstream designs that flood the department stores. Those "attention getters" you see on the runway draw notice to their work, with the hopes that major magazines will latch on to those outrageous pieces and have them reviewed.
Design schools tend to kick you out into a very competitive market with little or no business training. I strongly believe that every design school should offer a business course specifically designed for artists. I constantly receive calls from graduating metalsmithing students who are very concerned about their futures. Though I'm happy to help, I don't understand why I'm receiving these calls, and the teachers themselves aren't approached or don't have a clue.
The silver companies are getting away from sterling holloware because it's more labor intensive than producing flatware. Here is a fantastic opportunity. If people can't look to the silver companies for specialty work, where will they go? Those of you who think silver is dead in this country should take another look. With a country of over a quarter of a billion people, there will always be a percentage in the market for your work. We don't have the visibility or the advertising dollars of the large silver companies and retailers like Tiffany. Consequently, collectors often have a difficult time finding us.
One of our Artisan members lost his job at Colonial Williamsburg this year because the production silver shop was eliminated. Though at first he was shocked, he soon set up shop and has over one years worth of specialty silver work. How did he manage this feat? He has a keen business sense and outstanding skills as a silversmith without an elitist attitude. Here again is the value of being versatile in a craft which must extend its services beyond producing speculative pieces without other forms of income to fall back on.
Training Those Individuals Serlling Your Product
A very important aspect of selling your work to galleries or jewelry stores is to make sure your product is well represented. Always supply a resume and full description of how the piece was made, techniques used, and any other pertinent information that will help the retailer sell your work. Also supply silver care instructions specific to your creation as well as a pair of cotton inspection gloves. If you live close enough to the retailer, actually visit and show them how to clean and polish silver in general. There's nothing worse than having your work tarnish in a display case for lack of silver care knowledge. Always assume the seller knows nothing about how your work is created or how to care for it, even if they've been selling your medium for years.
I had a customer with a large established store in New York that sells Russian silver and Fabergé eggs. He shipped me a $25,000 pair of unmatched candelabra for major repairs. Each candelabra had identical cherubs supporting the candle candleholders. The dealer asked me if I could reverse one cherub to make a matched set! This is just one example of how our craft is misunderstood. I'm sure each of you has a favorite story.
Packaging Your Product
After you've created a commission, do you present it to the collector in tissue paper and a plastic bag? When Tiffany sells one of their products, do they put it in a brown paper bag? Think about it - you know your product is better designed and made than Tiffany, why treat it with such disrespect? At the very least, you should purchase inexpensive flannel bags for your holloware and flatware. Eureka Manufacturing, a division of Reed & Barton, has a $25 minimum order. For instance, they charge about $1.75 for a 6"x10" blue-gray drawcord flannel bag. That's pretty cheap if the piece you're making retails for $250. If the object is to be shipped, don't send it in a used, beat-up carton. Also, send instructions as how to care for the piece you took such pride in creating. Never, ever assume your customer knows how to clean silver. Commercial polishes like those manufactured by Hagerty are much too abrasive. If you like, go to the SAS Web site at silversmithing.com, and download the silver care and display instructions. Some of the antique dealers I do work for will occasionally ship me pieces for refinishing that have been molested with steel wool.
The Silver Market Throughout the World
Selling high-priced silver isn't a problem unique to America. In e-mailing and speaking with many silversmiths, especially throughout Great Britain, I hear the same concern. Though England has a greater appreciation for handmade silver, their market isn't what it used to be, and today there are many talented silversmiths who aren't producing the expensive pieces they once did. Their primary market for these goods continues to be Saudi Arabia, and much of the great work you see coming out of England is indeed headed to that part of the world. And getting back to the topic of technique, America silversmiths should be very proud. In Europe, especially England, there are support craftsmen, such as professional chasers, engravers, platers, spinners, and even polishers, for the silver trade, though, many professional silversmithiths are proficient in many advanced techniques. And they may be located just around the corner. We, as silversmiths in the US, are forced to know many of these techniques. This country is so large, we simply don't have those same support resources nearby.
What do I see selling in the next century? As always, candle holders, vases, and picture frames should continue their popularity as they have this century. Flatware serving pieces for weddings and general gift giving are also proven sellers. I predict that barware and baby goods such as baby cups and rattles, which are popular today, will continue their popularity into the next millennium. More and more people are establishing home businesses, partly because of their own uncertain futures of working within a company. Those working from their homes are also looking to buy art that will enhance their environment.
Entertaining is back in style!
Visit as many jewelry stores as you can to see what the major tableware manufacturers are producing. If a large company is going to design, tool-up, and advertise a new product, there's a good chance that they've done their homework. In an indirect way these companies have actually done the market research for you!
If you're going to design a one-off piece or something that will be mass-produced, think about what objects the public is already buying in large numbers.
White fine silver finishes may look fine in the workshop, but if the surface is not sealed properly, it will tarnish quickly because the object's surface acts like a sponge, absorbing pollutants more readily than a wire brush or polished surface would.
What type of finish are most people familiar with and looking for? By far, the most common finish is a high polish. This is the finish most people associate with silver, with a wire brush finish a distant second. If you visit any jewelry store, see how many pieces displayed have a file or fine silver finish. From America's first silversmiths, bright finishes, whether polished or burnished, have endured the test of time. Both large and small silver companies have followed suit. During the Arts & Crafts period, silver holloware was produced with bright and wire brushed finishes. History dictates what the consumer is most interested in. That's not to say that file finishes and unusual textures won't sell. Not every piece demands a high polish. But, keep in mind that much of the world is not ready to embrace these relatively new surfaces. Acclimating the public to these finishes is our biggest challenge.
Aligning With Outside Manufacturing Sources Resources
Let's say you're interested in practicing silversmithing as a professional. If a perspective customer faxes you with a design for 100 sterling baby cups, how will you handle their request? Firstly, don't gasp and consider it an insult that someone is assaulting your artistic integrity by having you produce their design. What you should do is call them and ask if they have a retail price in mind for the baby cup. If they come back with a figure of $20, tell them it's not possible. If the customer still sounds interested, ask them when they'll need the baby cups. If they say in two weeks, don't tell them it's impossible. At this point you're probably asking yourselves "why the hell do I want to deal with mass-produced baby cups?" The reason you want to get involved is two-fold: 1. Money can be made, and 2. The experience will better prepare you for that next call you receive from a jewelry store looking for 500 letter openers.
Here's what you do: contact a contractor that can put the whole project together for you. Fax them the customer's design with as many specifications as possible. There's nothing more frustrating for a manufacturer than dealing with someone not familiar with their business. Keep in mind that if yourt customer is buying these baby cups wholesale, a 10-15% mark-up is customary. So, you hop on the phone and call your customer, hopefully within a few days, and tell them the baby cup will cost $50 wholesale, not including tooling costs such as steel spinning chucks, casting patterns, and molds. If you're taking a 10% commission, that means you'll receive $5 per cup x 100 cups = $500. Don't mark-up the tooling charges if you don't have to; you want to make it as easy as possible for your customer to say "yes."
Now, let's say you put a total of three hours of correspondence into getting these baby cups into your customer's hands. That's $167 per hour. If the baby cups sell well, you may receive a purchase order in the future for another 100. At that point you're making $500 for making a phone call to the contractor. This is called residual income, and that's your security blanket! If you should become disabled, this income will hopefully prevent your bank from foreclosing on your house! If this is considered "selling out," hell, I'll sell out all day long! Creative marketing of your talents will afford you to produce those speculative pieces. Just as important is the knowledge you'll gain from the experience. You will have learned techniques you were unfamiliar with, and you'll be better prepared when the next call for a specialty item comes in. This product is going to be produced, with or without you; why shouldn't you be the one to benefit financially?
If you bring most European silversmiths a design to create, those silversmiths will most likely accept the commission without being concerned that their artistic values are being compromised. Most high-end American jewelry stores deal with Europeans for their eagerness to please the customer. They are renowned for their willingness to work from blueprints and customer specifications without complaint. In my dealings with the silver buyers at Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston over the past two decades, I've learned that they prefer dealing with the Europeans. Shreve's feels that American silversmiths are simply too difficult to deal with. They say we can't meet deadlines. They say that if it's not their own design, they're not interested in the commission. Sounds like we're pretty elitist. Whether true or not, that's the perception throughout many silver departments in the US. This one-of-a-kind work generally ends up outside our boarders. How many silversmiths in this country can produce a waiter with a flat bottom? Not many. Youmay ask "who needs a handmade waiter?" Not many people, obviously, but do we want to loose such techniques to Europe? Are we ready to say to our customers "I'm sorry, but of over one quarter of a billion people, America has not one silversmith to accommodate your need, you'll have to go to Europe to have it made." That would be a sad day in our illustrious history.
Holloware & Sculpture
Let's face it, expensive holloware and sculpture is tough to sell. If it weren't, there would be at least one gallery specializing in contemporary work. Why is handmade holloware so difficult to move? It's due to a few reasons. Silver, unlike other artforms, is not understood. Ask most antique silver dealers how silver is made, and you'll be astounded as to how few know anything about the products they sell on a daily basis. There's also the tarnish issue. There's a huge misconception as to the amount of care required to maintain silver. And, I occasionally hear that potential collectors are afraid of theft.
Antique silver is a hot commodity, especially unique pieces produced by colonial silversmiths, manufacturers like Gorham, Tiffany, and Whiting, and many of the Arts & Crafts silversmiths. Collectors see a tea set for $3,500 that's heavily chased, and can't understand why they should buy a contemporary $12,000 coffeepot. It's your job to educate your potential collectors. Bring them into your workshop (providing you have liability insurance) and demonstrate how a piece is raised, and the tremendous time necessary to planish a piece. There's no question they'll appreciate the labor required to produce even the most basic object.
My bread-and-butter is the restoration and conservation of precious metal holloware and flatware. I also perform occasional surgery on pewter. I have a tendency to get board easily, so this specialty suits my personality perfectly. I enjoy the wide variety of holloware and flatware I work on each day. If I were asked to build a tea set that may take a few months, I would get board out of my mind. With restoration, I can apply all my training and knowledge to resolve any problem I confront. I also care deeply for the $80 an hour I charge for my services. Do I feel as though I'm above polishing a large set of flatware? No way, I don't always need challenges, sometimes it's a nice change to mindlessly polish while thinking about my next project. There are individuals here today who feel that if you don't teach or only make one-of-a-kind pieces, it's "selling out." I'm doing something I enjoy. I'm making a good living. I have an outstanding reputation in the museum, collector, and antique dealer communities. And, I get paid on time. Sounds like a pretty good life.
As my members know, I don't pull punches, and if I see one them is having trouble with a technique, I don't slap them on the back an say "good job," I offer help. And, I do occasionally call members to praise them when I see an exceptional piece they created. If you truly want to educate and inspire those around you, be honest with them. If you're friendly with a colleague who's work is consistently substandard, chastise them! If you see students buffing without wearing a respirator, educate them, it may literally save their lives! If I can ever be of service, don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call me; though I don't teach, I get the biggest kick out of making things work for others.
We're in a very competitive, global, service oriented era. We're all here because of our love of metal. You can definitely make a living as a silversmith if you keep an open mind and don't pigeonhole yourself into a ridged way of thinking. There's no substitute for hard work and perseverance. What I've given you are options and suggestions, which I hope you found useful. I know that some of the subject matter I've discussed today isn't popular with some of you, and talking business can certainly be boring. We must all hold ourselves to the highest standards, now and into the 21st century. As my mother told me as a child, "good things come to those who wait." Mom was right. I love being a silversmith, even with its challenges!
© Jeffrey Herman