It’s National Apprenticeships Week 2019, and so we’d like to take a closer look at the role of a modern-day silversmith’s apprentice and introduce our very own James Aveling, who is coming to the end of his apprenticeship… and soon hopes to become a Freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company upon completion of his Masterpiece.
“My great uncle is a famous silversmith, Norman Bassant, and my uncle John Bassant is also a silversmith. So, making is something I’ve always wanted to do, and an apprenticeship is a great way to learn and get hands-on experience working in a real manufacturing workshop where the key thing is craftsmanship.
James set out on his apprenticeship path by enrolling on a one-year foundation course at the Goldsmiths’ Centre in Farringdon, which was a good all-round primer in silversmithing techniques, enamelling, stone setting and working with precious metals. The process remains largely unchanged since the 1600s, an apprentice is bound to a Master where they are trained for 4-5 years. Successful apprentices will achieve the status of a Freeman of the City, a member of the Goldsmiths Livery Company of the City of London.
Historically an apprenticeship lasted 7 years, and the apprentice slept in the workshop under his master’s desk and had his meals provided. These days, it’s a more like a regular long term industrial work placement. You’re learning directly from your master craftsman, who in-turn learned the same way, as did their masters, and so on going back hundreds of years.
James’ silversmithing apprenticeship began by assisting the craftspeople in all areas of the workshop, helping with every aspect of the silversmithing process from hand-raising (creating objects from sheet metal) through to spinning (using a special lathe to create smooth forms ), casting (see our piece on casting here), chasing and polishing.
“I began practicing techniques by working on brass, which behaves like silver but is cheaper to make mistakes with! However, apprentice or not, you are still part of busy commercial workshop and you have to earn your place there, so pretty soon I was working on client projects in silver. It’s a steep learning curve, but you’re learning from masters with decades of experience which helps a lot.”
James’ early silver practice creations were a pair of hand-raised goblets, practising the time honoured skills of using dividers to mark out the metal, and raising hammers to strike it into shape. This also meant learning the art of annealing -applying heat to soften the silver – which makes the metal malleable to work with.
James also learned the art of chasing and enjoys the creative expression it gives the silversmith to explore the surface of the metal, create effects that catch the light, and execute designs in relief. . However, he’s also keen to engage with new technologies, learning how to push the limits of the craft by blending traditional skills with 3D printing and CAD design, as well as advances in materials, alloys and casting.
Today, James takes projects from beginning to end, and also works as part of the workshop team helping to complete orders and manage stock levels. His aim as an apprentice is to become a fully fledged silversmith, capable of working independently as needed within the workshop.
“A really valuable part of my apprenticeship has been learning to plan projects within timescales, materials and budgets. At college, everything you make is a work of art, but in the workshop, every work of art has to come from an effective production process, time is money. Apprenticing is all about learning how to work as part of a team, and how to go from producing one piece at a time, to ten at once. New technology has a part to play in that, along with traditional production methods.”
Now nearing the end of his apprenticeship, James is beginning his masterpiece project, which is akin to a PhD thesis for a silversmith, the culmination of five years of hard work. James’ project is an ambitious clock design, that will take him through every step of the traditional silversmithing process, plus incorporate the latest techniques. He’s using 3D printing technology to create the master patterns that he’s casting, through to finishing with a variety of techniques from soldering, chasing surface details, machine turning (or guilloche) decoration and inlaying with pieces of jade and mother-of-pearl. The finished item, currently in its early stages , will be a 50cm tall tour de force, showcasing everything he’s learned at Grant Macdonald Silversmiths.
Check back here for updates on James’ remarkable clock project as it progresses, due to be finished in October 2019.
“In my year at college there were eight fellow students , and we’ve all specialised in different areas, enamelling, chasing, silversmithing, jewellery making, gem setting and so on. We’re all keeping traditions alive in our trade where traditional hand making skills are encouraged to prosper. Hopefully I’ll be taking on my own apprentices and passing on all the things I’ve learned over these years. ”
Modern college courses focus on new techniques and tend to move with the times, which is of course important in the modern, fast moving world, but it can mean the craft skills and knowledge that created some of the most important masterpieces in history are at risk of being lost. Apprenticeships keep those unique skills alive, and with it, London’s great tradition of hand-making beautiful pieces in gold and silver..
“The opportunity to work in a successful workshop as an apprentice has given me the best start for my future career and a lifetime of working with precious materials.”