A new English variety of apple: John Windsor watches Neil Curd blend the skills of the craftsman with modern machinery to make silver at an affordable price
Saturday 10 April 1993
Mass production has spoilt our eye for craftsmanship. Before machinery was invented, every silver object such as this could be created only by hours of meticulous beating by hand. People knew the value of such things because there were no substitutes. Today, who can tell? Why buy silver if your friends have no eye for it? No wonder the silver trade has declined.
As it happens, the silver apple is not hand-beaten. It is spun silver - a flat disc coaxed into shape with hand tools while spinning on a lathe. J A Campbell, the London silversmith, makes about 300 a year exclusively for Tiffany, the New York jeweller, where they sell for dollars 100 (pounds 66).
The company's founder, John Campbell, surprised me by saying that if the apples were mass-produced by stamping, instead of crafted by spinning, they might be more accurately made. In stamping, the flat discs would be punched into shape in a single blow from a heavy template.
The trouble with stamping, Mr Campbell said, was that tooling up was horribly expensive and would be nowhere near cost-effective for runs of only 300 a year. Beating by hand would also price the piece out of the market. These days, it seems, manufacturers can choose whatever mix of craftsman and robot they prefer - the final arbiter being economics. Spinning, a balanced blend of man and machine, gets it about right, at least for little silver apples. Which raises some questions about taste and the way we appreciate things.
Could a modern hand-beaten apple be more aesthetically pleasing than a spun or stamped version, once we know that its maker has chosen to ignore technological advance and spend long hours producing an inferior product by an obsolete method? Are there smart apples and doltish apples? Can you tell the difference?
It is not just what you see, it is what you know. Neil Curd would spot spun silver apples in a flea market because he knows how to make them. He is bound apprentice silver spinner to Mr Campbell, having served 18 months of his five years' training. When he completes his indentures, under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, he will automatically become a freeman of both the Company and the City of London. Children subsequently born to him can also obtain the freedom - but not their children. Such is the rule of patrimony.
Mr Curd slides one of half a dozen brass chucks on to the lathe spindle. Each chuck is a template matching different contours of the apple which is, as yet, only a silver disc. The chucks, made from brass rods, have been turned on the same lathe. Apprentices mount a chunk of rod, start up, and pare away at it with a turning tool, holding the designer's drawing behind it. It is all done by eye.
The silver disc is clamped against the chuck, the lathe begins to roll and Mr Curd presses the spinning disc against the chuck with a hefty tool-steel spike. Miraculously, the silver spreads over the contours of the chuck. By using both flat and sharp sides of the spike, he can either thin the silver or stretch it - a useful choice when it comes to making the top of the base the same diameter as the lid. 'It fits]' he says, as another two halves of apple nestle together.
Each little apple leaf is hand-cast. First an original in silver-brass is fashioned by hand. A rubber mould is made of it, which is cut open to rescue the original and then tied together again and the cavity filled with hot wax. The hardened wax leaf is removed and encased in liquid plaster of Paris, which, when set, is steeped in hot water so that the wax runs out. This is the 'lost wax' method.
The resulting plaster cast, after baking at 800C for 12 hours in an electric furnace, is capable of withstanding molten silver at 500C, poured into it while being centrifuged so it spreads evenly throughout the cavity.
Smash the plaster and there is the silver leaf, ready to be electrolytically gold-plated in a bath of lethal gold-cyanide. Gold never looked as unromantic as this. The gold leaves get their shine by spending a day in a polishing barrel with burnished steel balls. They are screwed and soldered on to the apple.
You might think that some tell-tale traces of Mr Curd's handiwork would be left intact, proclaiming the object's genuine hand-made status. Not at all. The apples are first 'sanded' using a polishing lathe with felt (originally elephant hide) wheels dusted liberally with pumice powder. The last traces of spinning lines disappear. Compressed lambs' wool mops, coated with rouge polish, bring up the lustre. The job could not be automated because of the need to polish in the nooks and crannies.
If it is silver-plated plastic apples you want, you should not approach John Campbell. But his eight employees, tucked away on a single floor of a factory in Shoreditch, east London, know all about the technology it would require. Works manager Ellis Degavino said: 'You can silver plate anything. First you would spray the plastic with electro-conductive paint with a certain amount of silver in it - so long as it will conduct a voltage, you can plate it by electrolysis.'
Mr Campbell's fascination with casting began at the age of 13. Having cast lead in a tobacco tin for fun and been given a plaster-casting kit for Christmas, he found he could replace his lead soldiers' missing limbs perfectly. 'It gave me an awful lot of confidence at the age of 13.'
The firm had its origins in a garden shed in 1965, turning out silver pepper mills, silver napkin rings and tea sets. It has its own maker's mark, the initials JAC in a triangle, which can be punched alongside three other marks - the official hall or town mark of the Assay Office, which vets the silver content (minimum allowed: 92.5 per cent), the standard or quality mark and the annual date letter.
The London silver industry, specialising in quality wares, has been badly hit by the recession. The mass-producers of Birmingham and Sheffield are more buoyant. The latest London casualty is the biggest silver manufacturer, the three centuries-old firm of William Comyns, which employed 400 people from 1910-20 and was in liquidation this year. A relaunch by the Malaysian company, Royal Selangor, is planned for this summer. The rest of the London trade now consists of a plethora of one- or two-man outfits and only two or three sizeable firms - Campbell's, Wakely & Wheeler and Naylor Brothers, owned by Asprey and Garrard.
Pieces bearing the mark of the dwindling number of silver manufacturers, especially those with interesting histories such as J A Campbell, could be the collectables of the future - but there is little sign of it yet. Apart from a few modern masters such as Gerald Benney, former professor of silversmithing and jewellery at the Royal College of Art, makers prefer to hide their light under bushels. Instead of dealing with the public, they sell, often exclusively, through retailers such as Aspreys, who apply their own 'sponsor's mark', the maker remaining anonymous. It is a tradition dating back generations.
One way of buying silver bearing the maker's instead of the retailer's mark is to present yourself on the factory doorstep and demand a certain piece in a hurry. Explain that the retailer is out of stock and that you cannot wait three or four weeks for a freshly ordered piece to pass through the Assay Office. If the manufacturer has some stock already hallmarked by the Assay Office and is prepared to telephone the retailer to square the deal, you could end up with a piece bearing his mark. But you will be regarded as being as crazy as someone knocking on the door of a Ford plant asking to buy a car. Hard-working craftsmen do not welcome intrusion by the public.
Mr Campbell's catalogue lists nearly 300 lines, some retailing at more than pounds 10,000. He is a major supplier of Mappin & Webb, but does not hanker after recognition as a maker in his own right. 'So long as we're making the sales, I'm not fussed,' he said.
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