The Jewellery & Silversmithing Industry - About The Trade
In this modern working world, there is still an important place for the fine things made in the jewellery and silverware trades. They are not just luxuries to be possessed by the few. Brooches and necklaces, cuff links and tie clips, cigarette cases, compacts, silver and plated wares for the table. Watches, clocks, cups and trophies for achievements at work or play, the traditional symbolic betrothal or engagement ring to the wedding ring which are still held with esteem, even in the 21st century. All this supplied by the jeweller.
Making jewellery and silverware is one of Britains oldest crafts. If you choose your career in this trade, you will be using your hands in an industry proud of its old skills, and eager to apply new industrial processes.
All Kinds of Different Jobs
Types of jobs vary enormously. Some employment is semi-skilled; there are careers for those willing to go on learning a craft all their lives. Many jobs in the trade today make use of the most up to date machinery. In contrast, there are handcrafts rooted in traditional skills that no machine can replace.
‘The Jeweller could be described as a cross between the Alchemist and the Magician’.
In a Friendly Trade
The jewellery and silverware and allied products industry are as friendly as the opportunities are many. Most factories and workshops are small with the great majority situated in London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The small units mean that trainees get individual attention during their training, and then have the satisfaction of working very much on their own. For the men and women, boys and girls, who make jewellery and silverware whether by hand or machine, there is a real feeling of pride in the work they do. Their nimble fingers, their careful and practised eyes, their use of infinite patience produce wares that will be chosen for their beauty and usefulness, and will be appreciated and treasured for hundreds of years.
The Jewellery Cities
London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh in Scotland are the main are the main centres for the manufacture of jewellery, silver and flat plate. Whether it is an individual designers diamond gem set ring or a pewter Christening cup, you will find it being produced in these centres. Goldsmithing; the making of boxes, masonic and official ceremonial regalia is a little more specialised. Costume jewellery, which has an important part within our industry, is produced for a mass market and sold on every high street around the world. But it still requires training for its production.
Qualification for Entry & NVQs
Generally speaking, academic achievements are not called for. However, those who are bright with art or CDT qualifications and good at solving problems will find themselves at an advantage. Some experience of wood or metalwork will prove useful, but the main requirements are manual dexterity, good hand-eye co-ordination, attention to detail, patience, a strong sense of trust and responsibility with a willingness to learn. Most jobs involve special training in the workshop and sometimes at college. In factories and workshops, the training is done with a craftsperson, and employees may be released for various options of specialised skill tuition at college.
Attaining a recognised qualification whilst you work is important to young people and the jewellery industry has recently developed a NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) Levels 1-3 in Manufacturing Jewellery and Allied Products. Employees can be assessed for the qualification during their usual daily employment and no initial academic qualifications are necessary for entry. However, demand for these NVQ’s has been disappointing and the industry’s awarding body, City and Guilds, have notified us that they will no longer be offering them.
The industry is trying to maintain the viability of these qualifications and our Sector Skills Council, SEMTA has prepared new National Occupational Standards for jewellery and silversmithing, which we expect to be accepted into the QCA National Qualifications Framework shortly. This will then allow a new awarding body to develop a new suite of NVQs based on these occupational standards. Until this is achieved it will not be possible for trainees to register for NVQs or for a Modern Apprenticeship in Jewellery and Silversmithing. JAITC will issue further advice and information as soon as this situation can be resolved.
Candidates who wish to undertake an alternative training course should speak to their local college about what is available. A list of colleges offering jewellery and silversmithing course can be obtained from this office.
The making of fine jewellery requires both patience and skill. It also needs a thorough understanding of precious metals and gemstones. There are three separate crafts in fine jewellery making: mounting, setting and polishing. These make the jewellery which has been designed by a trained designer, and for which the gems have been selected and prepared to fit the design brief.
The mounter is the skilled craftsperson who makes the framework of a piece of jewellery. They handle metal, form it and drill and open out the holes so that the gems selected for the mount will fit perfectly. There is no sparing of detail; every part must be perfect whether it shows or not. The different sections must be soldered together without any visible joint - and a complex brooch or necklace may have dozens of parts.
The mounter also learns how to prepare materials to make the catches for brooches and clips for earrings. Mounting is primarily handwork. Mechanical aids often assist: saw frames, pliers, hammers and gas torches are used. The more exclusive craftspeople use small oxygen and gas torches essential when working with platinum. In Birmingham some mounters prefer the mouth-controlled blowpipe. Used in conjunction with the Birmingham side light, the method dates back many centuries and leaves both hands free, whilst others use the hand-held torches of gas and pressurised air or butane varieties.
Some fine jewellery is now produced using batch-produced components either cast or stamped. These components must be carefully prepared, shaped and adapted to suit the stones and the designs of the particular piece of jewellery. Much of the laborious routine is thereby removed enabling the craftsperson to apply their skill to the utmost advantage. Trainees learn their skill first using base metals. Once their skills develop they are allowed, under supervision, to make all the parts of a mount for the piece of jewellery in one of the precious metals – gold or platinum.
The jewellery setter brings together the work of the gem sorter and the mounter, using many different tools with strange names e.g. spitstick, flat scorper or bullstick, with the added essentials of a keen eye and a steady hand. They make the minute adjustments to the mount that ensures the stones fit and are held firmly. They may have to cut away a merest fraction of metal so that the diamond or gemstone will fit exactly. The stones are then fixed securely in the mount, held by grains, claws, or plain rubover.
There are many different kinds of setting used in jewellery, all adding to the interest and variety of the work. For mounter and setter alike, every piece of jewellery is an individual piece of craftsmanship. Its design may be similar to others, but each mount and the job of setting must be approached as a unique operation. Fine large stones for instance, are usually claw-set, the small metal claws fitting securely over the girdle of the gem. Smaller stones may be pave set, massed together like a cobbled street, but each individually and firmly placed in its setting.
While the mount is being made, every part must be polished. The entire mount is carefully cleaned and polished to a high degree of smoothness so that every part, whether it shows in or not, is beautifully finished. After setting, the polisher is responsible for giving the jewellery a final polish. All traces of the polishing compounds and 'rouge' must be meticulously removed either by careful washing by hand, or by use of ultrasonic cleaning baths.
Jewellery Combining Machining and Handwork
Modern developments mean that a great deal of jewellery, especially gold jewellery, is made and decorated by semi-mechanised methods. An increasing amount of jewellery is being made using this process and then finished by hand.
The making of chains for bracelets and necklaces is a specialised branch of the trade. Some chain is primarily hand-made, some is made by precision multiple action machines, but chain-makers are normally trained in both types of work. There are a number of skilled jobs in chain-making which includes wire drawing, coil winding, pattern making, linking, soldering, filing, machining and polishing. Rolling and drawing metal in to wire is of course the basic work of a chain-maker who then winds it round spits or madrill. When it is taken off, it looks like a coiled spring, a saw then cuts this, and each half coil is ready to form a single link, which is joined or jumped together and soldered.
While many of the basic materials of the jeweller are nowadays prepared by specialist manufacturers - such as wedding ring tubes, ring mounts, bracelet tubes and even castings made from the jeweller’s own master patterns - many manufacturers still prefer to produce their own castings. The investment casting process is one of the most popular and important in the quantity productions of jewellery. The quality of the finished casting depends on the excellence of the master model from which the copies are eventually cast. It requires a considerable amount of training, as does the study of advanced casting techniques. Similarly, the preparation of the rubber mould is a skilled operation. First of all the master pattern is made, perfect in every detail. This is laid between sheets of rubber, which is then vulcanised by inserting into a press and using heat and pressure. Cutting the now hard rubber is a job requiring great skill and dexterity. It must be parted cleanly, using sharp scalpel-like tools, rather like those used by a surgeon. Following the cutting process, the two halves of the mould must contain locating slots so that they fit perfectly together. Pressure is then applied to hold the mould in the original position and wax is injected down the sprue hole. When cool, the hardened wax is carefully removed. Each wax model is carefully checked and kept clean, awaiting mounting onto a large wax sprue to form a tree. A metal can is placed around the wax tree containing a number of wax models and these are coated with a refractory investment; this is usually crystobalite or quartz based. When the process of investment is completed and the refractory material has dried, the cans are placed in an oven, which is gradually increased in heat, the wax that in non-residual is removed. The given name for this process is the ‘Lost Wax’ technique of casting.
Into the space left by the lost wax, molten metal is cast by the use of a machine known as a centrifuge. The arm in the centrifuge revolves and throws the molten metal into the cavity. The spinning continues until the metal solidifies, making sure that when the castings are cool, they will be free of any porosity giving dense castings. After allowing for cooling, the castings are immersed in water to remove the plaster. They are then cleaned, cut from the large sprue, when they may be filed and any excess material removed, and ready for the next process.
A new technique used today is to cast jewellery with the stones set in the wax so when the article is cast and comes out of the investment, it already has the stones set in it
Stamping and Presswork
The stamping press produces some jewellery parts. The setting of the machines used is a highly skilled occupation and the process is very widely used in the manufacture of jewellery and allied products.
This work includes soldering the various parts together, and as in chain making, the linking up of the chains for bracelets, necklaces and for link fastenings. In some factories, assembly is becoming more and more mechanised, even to the extent of automatic soldering. Most young people being trained to assemble jewellery will also find that they are being trained in the various finishing processes as well, so that they enjoy considerable variety in their work as well as making production more efficient and economical by being more rewarding to themselves and the company.
Decorative processes used today range from the traditional handcrafts: chasing, engraving and more modern techniques of diamond milling. Another important part of the trade today is plating, used both as a durable tarnish-free finish on silver and other noble metals to improve the appearance of the base metals used for costume jewellery.
Polishing is one of the most important jobs in the jewellery trade. Polishing is done against rotating felt bob brushes and mops’; ensuring the polish is worked in to every corner and crevice of the piece. After mopping, the jewellery has to be cleaned thoroughly. Most washing is done with ultrasonic cleaning equipment, which actually vibrates the dirt away from the surfaces.
In the costume jewellery industry, similar techniques are used although in some instances electro-polishing is used.
In recent years, considerable technical advances have been made in plating, especially as used in the jewellery trade. Most plating is by electro-deposition, rhodium, copper, gold, silver, chromium or other metals being applied within a special vat by passing an electric current through a solution and thereby transferring the plating metal from the piece of pure metal to the object suspended in the solution. Careful attention must be paid to manufacturing and polishing processes because it is vitally important that wares to be plated should be perfectly finished beforehand.
Enamelling is vitrous glass, which is applied by different styles and techniques depending on the design to be decorated. The glass is in powder form and is mixed with water to form a paste and then fixed to the article by firing. There is a wide range of colours so the end result can be most inspiring.
Machine engraving is done with high-speed steel cutters. The trainee learns how to use the cutters with different tools, which with skill can achieve special effects. The machine engraver must also learn how to grind their own cutters also preparing letters and other designs used as a template which is followed by the pentograph process
This is the process that gives deep and brilliant cuts used for many types of gold jewellery especially wedding rings, signet rings, cuff links and tie slides. It is a process which has replaced engine turning, which had been used to decorate cigarette cases and other flatware in the 19th century.
Giving gold or silver the appearance of rough fabric, stone or other organic materials. This is a technique widely used today for both jewellery and silver. It can be done by hand, using an abrasive tool, which can be used to achieve a wide range of different patterns. Sometimes the textured surface is further cut and polished by diamond milling.
Whilst engraving, milling and engine-turning all remove metal from the surface to achieve their effects, chasing is a hand-craft decoration achieved by punches which push the metal to the required pattern. Most chasers are employed in the silversmithing and badge making trades, but some jewellery can be decorated in this way, the technique being used prolifically in the later part of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th century.
Silversmithing involves a series of different crafts. The making of spoons and forks (flatware) and knives (cutlery) entail skills quite unlike those used in making coffeepots or sports trophies. Each stage and type of manufacture is usually the work of a specialist craftsperson, the silversmith, who raises or forms the vessel by hammering. The spinner, stamper, caster and the forger all work together in a complimentary way to produce a modern piece of silverware. Surface decoration is as important as finishing, and polishing. Often a silversmith will have the skills to use more than one of these many techniques.
In London, Birmingham and Sheffield, both handmade and machine manufactured silverware is produced using electro-plating, electro-desposition and Sheffield plate along side stainless steel. There is also a large manufacturer of pewter in Sheffield, which can be traced back five centuries.
The process of making silverware by the traditional method using hammers over a steel stake is known as raising. This is a lengthy and skilled operation. The piece is shaped very gradually, row by row, by hammering evenly from the centre to the outer edge. Each time the edge is reached, the silver must be annealed; the process of heating makes the metal malleable again ready for further work. This technique is used widely when making silverware.
The different parts that make up a piece of silver - body, foot, lid, handle sockets are attached to one another by soldering. This is another developed skill in the silversmith’s repertoire. A joint must be neat, with no excess solder showing.
Silver hollowware (bowls, pots, tankards, dishes) can also be made using the process of spinning, which is another of the skills within this part of the trade. The spinner uses a flat disc revolving at high speed, fixed in the centre of the lathe. This is worked over a shaped wooden or metal chuck with a steel-headed tool, which has a long handle that is firmly tucked under the arm of the operator. It is important that the silversmith ensures the metal is kept malleable by annealing.
Another more mechanised method of raising silverware is by stamping. The making of the dies for stamping parts is a highly skilled craft. The stamping is a skilled operation, for which most of the openings are with Birmingham and Sheffield manufacturers.
Flatware and Cutlery
While the largest output of flatware and cutlery comes from Sheffield, a certain amount is hand-forging is still done. In Birmingham and Sheffield, the trade is largely concerned with finishing prepared blanks, which are assembled, pre-paired and plated as required. Hand forging of flatware and cutlery, like silversmithing is really a number of related crafts. There are three distinct processes, but usually trainees who are attracted by flatware manufacture are expected to train in all three - striking, forging and filing. In striking, a hammered-out-billet of silver is prepared and placed in a die to be struck by a press. After this, it is held in tongs and made red-hot and then shaped out with a succession of hammer blows, final shaping is done by filing. After training, the craftsperson often tends to specialise in one or other of these occupations.
Polishing is yet another important craft in the jewellery trade. Silver when it comes from the silversmith is covered with all sorts of marks and blemishes, which the polisher must skilfully and patiently remove. There may be scratches, file ridges, minor fire marks etc, that have appeared during the making. Once these are out, then final polishing is needed to bring out the lustre of the final article and make the most of the decoration.
Some of the decoration used on silver is in fact part, of the actual making. Spouts and handle sockets for instance, may have scroll or other ornamental details, which are made when the parts are cast. Casting is a job at which some silversmiths choose to specialise. It requires great patience and skill to make the master-model and to produce a fine casting free from flaws and which needs the minimum of chasing to make it perfect. Applied wire, which may be drawn or stamped out, can also be, classified as integral decoration on silver.
Chasing is one of the most important and certainly the most varied type of ornamentation used on silver. It may turn out to be almost flat rather like engraving, though in chasing no metal is removed, it is merely pushed along into patterns with small punches or it may be in high relief when it is worked both from the back and front to produce re-pousse chasing. The chaser usually makes their own tools to suit the job in hand and they must learn to use a hammer so that every tap ensures a regular indentation of the punch. They may have to work from inside a pot by means of a long iron tool, tapping it and bumping up the pattern by remote control. They may have to sharpen the outlines of cast work, produce matted effects or give detail and definition to embossed patterns by what almost amounts to a sculptor’s approach to work without ever removing any of the metal.
Skill at drawing is essential for the engraver, who must also have plenty of patience and perseverance. Like the chaser, the engraver uses many different types of tools to gain different effects for e.g. light and shade, lettering, sharp and brilliant engraving known as bright-cut.
This is done with a very fine blade set in a three-sided frame. The pattern to be pierced is traced on to paper, glued on the metal and then cut in a series of absolutely upright and very small cuts. Great delicacy of touch is needed and close examination of a piece of hand-pierced work will reveal the tiny tooth-like.
Machines are also used for piercing, a process known as fly piercing. This is widely used for less expensive stamped silverware and plated goods; this is a form of presswork.
A very specialised branch of silversmithing is the making of silver and gold boxes, caskets and cases. For the trainee who likes to work in straight lines, this presents a worthwhile challenge. Besides the basic principles of silversmithing, they must be especially skilled at making concealed hinges and at inlaying metals.
Engine turning was first introduced around the 1800’s in Birmingham and is probably the oldest of the machine processes used in the jewellery and silverware trades. It is, however by no means a mechanised craft, despite the use of machines, this trade requires patience. Once an engine turning job has been started, it must be finished in a single operation, for the turner can never again find the exact place where they left off. The cutting tool bites into the metal and with its help, the turner can achieve innumerable variations of design.
The manufacture of badges, medallions and other insignia is a specialist undertaking conducted by certain manufacturers in silver and carat gold’s.
The work of a badge maker requires an artistic flair in the design and cutting of master dies. These masters are used in order to die sink the pattern into tools, which will be used in the eventual manufacture of the article in question. The finished article may be an Olympic medal, a mayor’s badge of office or a commemorative medal. The end result is the satisfaction of having produced a work of art in metal that may be sent to any country in the world.
Manufacture of Electro-Plated Wares
This is largely carried out in Birmingham and Sheffield, where electro-plated nickel silver (EPNS) and plated copper wares are made in quantity. The basis of EPNS ware is a nickel alloy known as 'nickel silver'. This is usually stamped out, where many of the processes of assembly and finishing have become largely mechanised, including plating and polishing. However, the skilled hand and eye of the craftsperson are still necessary not only to set and maintain the tools, but also to ensure the final quality. While the old form of plating known as Sheffield Plating still continues, the much more common method is electro-plating (Sheffield sterling standard on to a copper base). Electro-deposition transfers pure silver (or other metal) onto a base, usually nickel silver. The plater, despite technical advances, remains an important person in the plating shop.
Tool-making and Tool-setting
Tool making is the manufacture of tools in order to assist in the production of jewellery, whether making watch cases, cups, rings, bracelets or brooches etc. It is a skilled trade and a good toolmaker may often influence the progress and development of a company. It requires intensive training, accuracy being essential. Making tools must be considered in relationship to the metal that will be worked by them and by the labour that will be operating them.
Tool setting is the installation of tools into presses or machines that will run production of parts to be manufactured. This requires great accuracy in order to acquire the correctly made parts and for the long life of tools. Bad setting will result in constant maintenance and tool replacement.
The metal used by the jeweller, goldsmith and silversmith, generally comes from specialised bullion dealers, many of who also prepare and supply semi-manufactured metals such as wire, tube, castings sheet and findings.
Lapidary Work and Diamond Polishing
The lapidary is responsible for producing a finished gem from rough material.
Gem sorting is a specialised occupation. Whilst a knowledge of gemstones is essential for the manufacturing jeweller and a few employ their own sorters, most gem sorters are employed by stone dealers.
In the watch and clock trade there are many different kinds of jobs available. There are openings with watch and clock manufacturers and with importers in London, Birmingham and elsewhere, where imported movements are fitted to the cases, adjusted and repaired as necessary.
Preparation of Metals for the Jeweller
The preparation and rolling of wires used in jewellery making, the stamping of parts, rolling sheets of gold and silver to the required thickness, and turning metal on the lathe are important jobs in the jewellery workshop for which training is required.
The stamping of metal on a die will reproduce whatever pattern has been cut into the die. Thus, die sinking involves making a master pattern in reverse, either by hand or by the use of a pantograph or computer technology. The master is then sunk or impressed into metal and metal die. Forcing the metal into the metal die produces the stampings.
The master dies are hand cut with special cutters and chisels by a skilled toolmaker or die cutter. This art requires skill for which training must be undertaken. Modern technology can be used to produce such dies, but these computerised mechanisms are expensive, so for small production it may still be more economical to produce by hand.