Journeyman silversmith Preston Jones reflects on his 26 years of creating silver pieces.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This stuff is new and you won’t hear it anyplace else. This is Behind the Scenes, where we let you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time I’m asking Preston Jones at Colonial Williamsburg. He is a silversmith.
Lloyd: I guess the first question is “What does a silversmith do?”
Preston Jones: Well a silversmith in Colonial Williamsburgâ€¦we make all sorts of 18th-century silver items â€“ coffee pots, bowls, flatware, spoons, forks, ladles. For instance, I make a lot of ladles in the shop. I am finishing up a teapot now, which is pretty interesting. And just about anything you would want in silver you can imagine.
Lloyd: How many people in the shop?
Preston: There are six of us who work there. We have right now two apprentices, three journeymen, and a master silversmith. I am a journeyman silversmith.
Lloyd: How did you get interested in that work?
Preston: Well...it is quite an interesting story. I was in art school, just out of high school. I did photography work in high school. I was very interested in art, and also photography, so I went to art school in Fort Lauderdale. I learned photography there, and it was a two-year school. I am from this area, so when I came back home, I needed a jobâ€¦and just got a job in Colonial Williamsburg.
Before I went to photography school, I worked at what was the information center. That was in 1975 when I started there. I worked there for a few years and then went off to school, and I came back I got a job at Colonial Williamsburg once again. When I came back, I worked at the distribution center â€“ which was sending packages, and UPS, and things like this. That job was terminated, and the person who was there â€“ George Bratton at the time â€“ said, “I think you’d be interested with your background with working with Jimmy Curtis,” who at the time was a journeyman silversmith at the James Geddy House.
From there, I went to the Geddy House, and Mr. Curtis sort of took me under his wing, and he said, “I’ll teach you to make these things.” At the time, there were beautiful silver items in the cases there, and I said, “Right.” He said, “Wellâ€¦I’ll teach you.” So, shortly after that I got an apprenticeship â€“ an opening was there, and I’ve been there for about 26 years now. So, I completed an apprenticeship. It was seven years for the apprenticeship. And, I’m a journeyman now, and I’ve been there for 26 years making many of the things that I never thought I would be making.
Lloyd: I would ask you if you like your work, but after 26 years, that’s sort of a dumb question. (Laughs.)
Lloyd: How long â€“ I know it depends on what you are making â€“ like you said, you’re now working on a teapot. That’s interesting. How long does it take to make by hand a teapot?
Preston: Well in Colonial Williamsburg, our jobs are there to interpret 18th-century silversmithing, to explain how these things were done with the tools and techniques that were available to people 200 years ago. And so, we don’t spend the time that we could if we weren’t there talking to folks about making a teapot. And this teapot, this particular teapot I am working on, if I sit down and worked on it for, say, 10 hours a day, it would take a bit over 200 hours to make â€“ about 225 hours or about five weeks, if I worked on it ten hours a day.
But our jobs, again, we’re there to explain about how they were done in the 18th century, soâ€¦for instance this morning before I came here, I was working on the base of the teapot, which if I sit in the workroom I could do one in about 10 hours, but that spread it out to about a week just to make the base of it. But it’s fun to put it together, and people are so interested in what you are doing. This particular teapot I am working on I like to make. It has a strainer inside, and we decorate it very fancy. The only way you see the strainer is from the inside of the teapot, which is really, really neat. Sometimes we put the person’s initials in it, and they flip over that.
Lloyd: What do people ask you about what you are doing?
Preston: What do they ask me about what I am doing? Basically how things are done. People are curious about what I just told you, where we come from and how do we learn. I think the folks who come by can put themselves in your place, because they are all apprentices as well â€“ because no one really knows about silversmithing, for instance.
I remember when I was an apprentice there, people could identify with you, because they were in the same shoes you were in for instance, just learning. And so, as a journeyman, they say well, they’d like to talk to the apprentice. They say “Well, what are you doing, what are you learning today?” It’s kind of frustrating also when you are an apprentice, because you are learning to do things, and sometimes I am there as an apprentice figuring something out, and people will say “Well, what are you doing?” and it’s kind of embarrassing, because I don’t want to say “I don’t know what I am doing. I am trying to figure it out.”
Preston: But now I am very comfortable about what I am doing. So, it’s no problem, I put it down and say, “Well, this is what I am doing.”
Lloyd: Who is more interested in silversmithing â€“ adults or kids?
Preston: They both areâ€¦I can’t say one is more interested in something other than the other. That’s pretty difficult. I never really thought about that. I guess kids have different questions. They want to know how long it takes to make something and how much things cost. And people pretty much are curious about the construction of it. And you get the people who sort of know about metalsmithing, “Do you do this particular technique?” like soldering, for instance. We solder different pieces together.
We have to what’s called “anneal” the silver. Everyone sort of thinks silversmithing is like blacksmithing. They all picture you get the metal red hot, and you pound on it and shape it and so forth. Silversmithing is just the opposite of blacksmithing. For instance, with silver, you always work the silver cold, or at room temperature, you hold it in your hands. But after pounding on it, it gets hard, so then we heat it and cool it to soften it to work it again, and that’s an annealing process. So once we explain thatâ€¦I had a guy just this morning say, “Wow, I really never thought you worked the metal cold.” You always look at old Westerns and the town smithy is working the metals red hot. And that’s what they associate with. But silver is the opposite â€“ silver and gold is what we work with, and those are just the opposite.
Lloyd: I hate to tell you this, I thought you worked with it warm or hot, too. (Laughs.)
Preston: (Laughs heartily.)
Lloyd: Blacksmithing â€“ if I understand it correctly â€“ is really a great big hammer, and you just pound on it. Yours is a lot more delicate, I should thinkâ€¦
Preston: You would thinkâ€¦wouldn’t you? But we castâ€¦ there’s a 50-ounce ingot I cast, and we use sledge hammers, and we hammer out the metal, it takes sometimes â€“ with hammering out a 12- or a 13-inch diameter circle â€“ three of us are hammering on it with large hammers, and we have to put ear plugs in, it’s very deafening, and so people, when we do that, come in and say “Wow,” (like you) “I thought this was a delicate art.” But they see us wailing away on this piece of silver because it is so thick to spread it out into a sheet. It baffles them. People don’t see that. In the 18th century in England, they used rollers. But here in the colonies, since that technology of the rollers was not allowed in the colonies, it was all done by hand, so that is what we do here in Williamsburg and hammer all of our ingot.
Lloyd: After you hammer it out, is there a delicate part? You’re making the teapot now that you enjoy, surely you do not take a huge hammer and whack on the teapot!
Preston: Exactly. Now once we’ve hammered out this sheet, then it is a process of moving the metal into shape, which is a smaller hammer, of course â€“ a shaping hammer. Then once you have the piece into shape, we use a smaller hammer with a very flat polished face on it which is used for hammering out the hammer marks made from hammering it into shape, and then it’s a process of using the same hammer and we hammer out the hammer marks made from hammering out the hammer marks made from hammering it into shapeâ€¦so it’s very, very smooth.
And then there are certain techniques in silver, once the piece is made, that a lot of people maybe associate with silver, like engraving the silver â€“ putting the decorative techniques, and then saw piercing, which is cutting out designs. There’s a lady in the shop that does wonderful saw piercing work. She is a journeyman as well. There is a beautiful basket in our shop you must see. It’s really wonderful. It takes about 700 hours of work that goes into making it. So people see us cutting out designs in it and things like that. That’s the delicate part that they see, but a lot of people don’t see the hammering out of the ingots and all.
Lloyd: Unless you told me, I would never have suspected that’s what went on, but when you think about it, it makes a certain amount of sense. If you can’t do it any other way, then arm power is about as good as you’re going to get.
Preston: Absolutely. Labor was it in the 18th century.
Lloyd: Were people proud of their silver in the 18th century? Did they show it off? I know now ladies who own silver tea sets will still to this day put them out where you can see them. Was that the case back then?
Preston: Oh absolutely. Silver was money. And it wasâ€¦you displayedâ€¦ you showed your wealth in the 18th century. And, not only were these things functional, but they were very nice to look at; they were very beautiful pieces to look at as well. So, they displayed them...oh, I don’t knowâ€¦ much like people who have money today, they sort of show it with their cars maybe, and houses, and you have your boats or sometimes maybe planes or something in your yard. So, in the 18th century, it was the same way, you showed your wealth.
Lloyd: But I think displaying your silver teapot has a bit more taste than a boat. Since I’ve never had the opportunity to do either, it’s easy for me to say.
Preston: (Laughs.) Well, don’t feel bad. (Laughs.)
Lloyd: Oh really? You don’t have one either?
Preston: I do not.
Lloyd: But the difference is that you could make your own if you wanted to.
Preston: Yes, yes, yes, yes, but it’s a lot of work as well, and you know, and it’s like the mechanic has the worst running car, and the carpenter’s house is always in repairâ€¦
Lloyd: The shoemaker’s kids need shoes, that’s the one I was always told.
Preston: Exactly. One thing my master silversmith Mr. Curtis told me was if you are a silversmith you have to be aware because all your relatives and friends know you have silver, and if you give gifts they expect bigger and better things all the time, so be aware, always give cards and flowers.
Lloyd: I’d never thought of that, but it does make a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it?
You mentioned on the basket where the lady does the wonderful open work that it took about 700 hours. What takes the most time?
Preston: Actually it’s about half and half to raise the basket up. You have to see this piece to understand. There’s cast parts on it, so you have to make patterns. The patterns are made in wood, and you make a sand impression of the wooden pattern. Once the impression is in the sand, you can melt silver, pour it into that impression, which makes a casting. You clean the castings up; you make several castings to solder together to make a frame. And then, you take your sheet of silver and hammer it up like a big bowl, and you solder this pattern around the top.
There is also what’s called “chasing,” or “repoussÃ©” work, in which the silver is bumped out from the inside, filled with tree sap or pitch, and hammered back in on the outside to make a decorative design. And then you melt this pitch out. You make a base, you put it onâ€¦ a handle. And so you have a big decorative bowl. Then Gayle â€“ the lady â€“ gets it, and she draws the designs, drills holes, and feeds the saw blade through, and she cuts out different designs â€“ it’s about 1300 holes in this particular piece. So, it’s about half and half.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.