Master Silversmith George Cloyed explains that silver on the shelf is like money in the bank, and a silversmith’s records can reveal a town’s story.
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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. We’re checking in again this week with historic trades, and today we meet the silversmith George Cloyed. You’ll find all of the artistry and accomplishments of the silversmith’s trade in the Golden Ball Silversmith Shop on Colonial Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street. George, thank you for being here today.
George Cloyed: Thank you Harmony.
Harmony: Well you’re not just a silversmith. You’re the master silversmith.
George: Yeah, for what it’s worth. That means I manage the operation of the silversmith shop.
Harmony: How long have you been practicing this trade?
George: I’ve been here 37 years in September of 2012.
Harmony: And so as the master of the shop what types of things do you do?
George: I manage the operation of the shop, the budget, the employee’s schedules. I form the direction the shop is going to take in terms of what we’re going to make, how we’re going to make it, who learns. My primary responsibility is for training apprentices, the next generation that will replace me.
Harmony: What types of things are you making in the silversmith’s shop today?
George: We make a variety of things. Probably the thing that is most remarkable is the hollow ware that we make: cups, coffeepots, bowls, large vessels of silver that are hammered into shape which are time- consuming and costly to make, and is rarely being done anywhere in the world by hand.
Harmony: And so these are of course the types of objects that you would have found being made in a silversmith’s shop in the 18th century?
George: Yes. In some of the larger cities in America, you would find a fair amount of hollow ware being done. You’d also find here in Williamsburg probably more jewelry, more spoons, more repairs and so since I’ve been the master it’s one of the things we’ve tried to focus on is producing more jewelry and making a lot of flatware â€“ primarily spoons and ladles.
Harmony: To me that kind of product suggests that Williamsburg was a very affluent city. Is that a correct assumption?
George: I think being the capitol of Virginia made it more affluent than a lot of cities in Virginia. Although the fact that we didn’t have a strong commerce base, that we weren’t a seaport, probably kept it from being quite as affluent, say, as a city like Norfolk or Portsmouth. And even Yorktown might have had as much commerce or more than Williamsburg did.
Harmony: So if you’re in a more metropolitan area that does have a seaport, how would you expect the business of the silversmith to be a little bit different in a place like that, than somewhere like Williamsburg was in the 18th century?
George: Well the primary reason that seaports were popular places for silversmiths was that cash money, actual money made of metal, was coming in through trade. A lot of Spanish money is finding its way through trade into the seaports and that Spanish money is being taken by the people who make it to silversmiths. The silversmiths are melting it down and making it into things. Where you don’t have a source of raw material, like cash, you have to depend upon recycling old silverware that’s worn out or out of fashion and that makes it more difficult for a silversmith to build a business if he can’t get a reliable source of material he makes his product from.
Harmony: Well that’s fascinating. So rather than having a mine where you get your raw material, it might be literally the coins in your pocket or some old silver that you already have or that’s been in your family?
George: Yes. It was commonplace for people to have coins melted down and it was quite common to have silver recycled, because people wanted their silverware to reflect the latest London fashion. They wanted others to think that the silver that adorned their table was a result of their success and their status in the community as opposed to, you know, past generations.
Harmony: That’s remarkable to think that your silverware would be something that you would give a makeover everyâ€¦how often would that maybe have it made?
George: Maybe every 20-30 years. You could figure at least 30 years at the outside that you’d keep a piece of silver then it would be refashioned because by that time styles were changing and well-to-do people like to keep up with the latest London fashions.
Harmony: Well this makes me think if you’re recycling and remaking your silver so often, does that make it hard to find surviving antique examples if they were so often melted down?
George: Yes, it does, and it particularly is true of times when there are wars and large amounts of silver are melted down to pay for necessary goods and services because the law of supply and demand makes those products more valuable. People just liquidate the silver to turn it into cash and buy things.
Harmony: And so making some of your assets in to a silver piece might be a good way to store it or sort of invest it for a while?
George: It was a very good way in the 18th century. When you figure banks as we know it didn’t exist, and you think about the risks that you took when you invested. In fact, if you just keep money in a bag somewhere it looks like someone else’s money. If they take it, they can spend it without any problem. But if you turn something into a piece of silver it has an identifiable style and shape that maybe you’ve engraved with your family crest or coat of arms, that piece of silver is yours. It can be identified in an ad if stolen as being yours and is more likely to be recovered than a bag of money for instance.
And also if you take money and make it into something, you’ll want to keep it to use it in the form that you had it made into. So you’ll want to use your spoon as a spoon, use your cup as a cup. If you leave money in the form of money the only way to use it is to spend it and then it’s gone.
Harmony: So your money has a very literal value when it’s standing on a sideboard as a pitcher?
George: Yes I think people in the 18th century would have recognized that more so than we do today. We look at a piece of silver on a sideboard and we say, “Well that’s an elegant work of art that happens to be made of a precious material.” And I think they would have seen it first and foremost as a big chunk of money that happens at the moment to be made into an elegant work of art.
Harmony: We’ve mentioned that people of very high society might want to seem very fashionable. Were the silversmith’s clients generally that very upper end of the gentry type of society?
George: I think in some of the large cities that would be the case. You also have to understand that if you’re in Virginia and you’re in Williamsburg, you’re dealing with an agrarian society and most people are raising tobacco and selling it to England. So if you’re going to sell your goods to England, your tobacco to England, you’re going to redeem that capital that you’ve created for yourself. You’re going to redeem that in England, you’re going to buy your silverware from England rather than buy it from a local silversmith.
Probably again, James Craig is making more jewelry, more small items, doing more repairs, probably selling some English goods that he himself has imported and then making spoons and flatware for the middle class. So the merchant class, the tradesmen, the professionals like lawyers and physicians, they’re probably more his clients than the very upper class. Not that the upper class didn’t patronize him for small things and repairs, but if they wanted something like a big tea set, they wouldn’t go to James Craig or any of the other Williamsburg silversmiths probably.
Harmony: I’m curious about how this process works. Let’s say I’ve got a big bag of Spanish pieces of eight and I want to have that made into some silverware. If I bring those coins to you, just drop those onto the counter, how does the process start? How does that take place, that transformation?
George: Well we would have to determine the value of the silver that you brought us, and when that value would be entered in my account book we’d do it by weighing it and then you and I would bicker how much value it had. Once we determined its value, then you decide what you want, you decide approximately how much it’s going to weigh because the weight of the material was very important because the value of the object was mostly the value of the metal in the object.
So once we determined an outside weight like, say, “I don’t want a coffee pot that weighs more than 40 ounces,” and we’ve determined the style, then I can estimate how long it’s going to take to make. I might even have a conference with my journeymen who are doing the work and they will tell me, “This will take this many hours or this many days.” And then I can figure that my cost, what it’s going to cost me to make it, and I’ll add on to that my overhead and my other expenses and my profit. Then I will tell you a price per ounce for the work so you might give me 40 ounces of silver, I’ll give you a price of 3 shillings per ounce for the workmanship. We may even barter over that. You may think that’s too high. I may think it’s not high enough, but eventually we’ll arrive at a price per ounce.
I’ll make you the product. If the product, when it’s done, weighs 40 ounces and that’s how much you gave me you only owe me for the labor. In practice what probably happened was that the piece came in a little over 40 or a little under 40 and then you either owed me for the labor plus some more for the silver or I owed you for some of the silver that I didn’t give you back so I simply deducted that from what you owed me for the labor.
Harmony: I’ve always thought of the things in the Silversmith’s Shop as just beautiful sort of sculptural objects, but talking to you now it seems to me like the silversmiths trade can tell us so much more about what’s happening in the colonies, what’s happening in the economy, and even as you pointed out what kind of political upheavals or wars might be going on at the time. What is the significance more largely of the silversmith’s trade in the colonial era? What can we learn by looking at that trade, about sort of the bigger picture?
George: Well I think silver was a thing that showed affluence. One of the things that we will always do as human beings is to want to show off our success, and that was a way of doing it. The fact that economies get stronger or weaker, right now we’re in a weak economy and you would probably see silversmiths suffering. So when you look at the past and you look at how a silversmith manufactured things, there are times when he’s not doing much, there are times when his output is low. That’s a reflection of how strong the economy is.
When there’s a war, silversmiths pretty much stop making silver for the most part. James Craig in Williamsburg, his last advertisement as a silversmith is in 1775. His next advertisement is in 1777 when he advertises his house and shop for sale by auction on the steps of the Raleigh Tavern. There’s no evidence that he ever sold the place. He seems to be there in 1781 when the war is over, but he basically ceases to produce silver during the war. So economic upheavals can be measured the volume of silver that exists from a certain time period, and if you’re lucky enough to look at the silversmith’s records you can read his accounts and see where he’s not doing anything and that means there’s a bad time out there.
Harmony: Well visitors who come to Colonial Williamsburg can see you in the shop and hear all this, but they can also see the process of silver pieces being made. Where and when can they visit you in the Historic Area?
George: You can visit us every day of the year. We’re open from 9:00-5:00 and we’re in the last block before the Capital next door to the Millinery and across the street from the Wig Shop.
Harmony: Alright. That’s the silversmith. Everybody stop by and see him. George, thank you so much for being here today.
George: Thank you Harmony.