13 February 2008

Global Seminars & Invited Speaker Series


Silversmithing: theory and artistic techniques

Dr. Ignacio Miguéliz Valcarlos.
Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

One of the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind was that of the techniques of metallurgy, the extraction and processing of metals. It is not for nothing that the division of periods in prehistoric times is called the Bronze Age and the Iron Age according to the metal used work. This mastery of metals provided man not only with objects for everyday use, but also with objects of a sumptuary and artistic nature, for which metals such as gold and silver were used in particular, which at an early date acquired their meaning as noble metals.

The work of these two materials will develop as technical innovations advance, both in their extraction and processing, as well as in their working. The finding of America, with its rich mines, was a turning point in extraction techniques, as the enormous quantities of metal made innovation necessary in this area subject.

Advances were also made in the techniques for working gold and silver pieces, which were no longer limited to forging, consisting of hammering the metal sheet until the desired shape was achieved. With the finding of turning, with Juan Ruiz el Vandalino, a silversmith from Jerez, being the first craftsman to use it, the introduction of pieces with cylindrical bodies was made possible. Advances were also made in casting, which made it possible to make round figures, which, thanks to the lost wax technique, no longer had to be solid, with the consequent saving of material that this produced.

Embossed tray

Embossed tray

The resulting silver sheet has several techniques at work . On the one hand, there is the "Repujado", which consists of striking the sheet with a hammer, hammering it on the reverse of the sheet, modelling it in negative, obtaining the motif on the obverse, without losing any material, thus obtaining a high relief. Chiselling is very similar, the difference being that the metal sheet is worked with a chisel, a steel tool with a thicker cut than the burin, striking it from the obverse, thus obtaining a bas-relief. Engraving in which a decorative motif, drawing or registration is obtained by incising with a burin, extracting small threads of silver in this operation. Due to the use of the burin, it is also known as engraving. If the incisions are discontinuous or consist of a line of dots, it is called Pointillado or Picado de lustre. It has the variant of die-cutting, which consists of the repeated printing of the same decorative motif on the silver plate by means of a die or matrix. And the openwork, which cuts the sheet by means of a punch or a saw, removing material from certain areas of the sheet, obtaining an openwork design. Finally, filigree is worked by welding metal wires together, either to form a decorative motif on a support or to form the piece itself.

Given the economic value of the material used to make these pieces, silver and gold, which is the same material used for minting coins, from the beginning their use was governed by a series of laws, the rules of marking, which established the printing of a series of marks testifying that these works were made with sterling silver.

Depending on the place where the pieces were made, these rules varied, establishing the stamping of different marks, relating to the place where the work was made, the author of the work, the hallmark that had been used to attest to the use of sterling silver, and finally the payment of the tax. Thus Navarre and the Crown of Aragon established a double marking, that of locality and author, Castile imposed a triple marking, locality, author and contrast, while in the American workshops four marks were established, the three Castilian ones plus the one indicating the payment of the tax. Along with these marks we can also find the burin, a broken line, normally in zigzag, made by the marker to prove that the piece is made of sterling silver, as well as a chronological mark, which although they began to be seen in the 17th century, it was not until the end of the following century that their use began to become generalised.

Locality and author marks

Locality and author marks

There are numerous variants and types of existing marks, and nine groups can be established in the case of locality marks, although the same mark can be ascribed to the same group. They can be Nominal, in which whole city names, syllables or abbreviated words appear, such as Pamplona (Double P crowned); Architectural, formed by aqueducts, castles, fountains, bridges or towers, such as Bilbao (Tower with bridge and letter B); Human figures, complete or partial, such as Burgos, which is the caput castellae, (Head over castles); Vegetable, with trees, plants and fruit, such as Granada (Granada); Animals, in which birds and mammals appear, such as Teruel (passing bull in a box with a star and the name of the city); emblems and liturgical objects, such as Oviedo (Cross of the Angels); astronomical signs, such as Tuy (Three stars over a crescent moon); crowns and various, such as San Sebastián (Boat with letters on the sides); or finally local coats of arms, such as that of Valladolid (Coat of arms with waves).

The variety of silversmith's marks and contrasts is even wider, as they depend on the sign chosen by the silversmiths as a stylus staff, varying in their spelling and composition, using different types of lettering or profile, with the name or surname, in full or abbreviated, or a combination of these, on one or several lines. Likewise, some masters chose a symbol as a mark staff , a common case among Pamplona silversmiths in the 18th century.