Photo by Tim Wright/CORBIS

Photo by Tim Wright/CORBIS

Americans remember Paul Revere for his famous midnight ride from Boston that corralled Revolutionary forces against the British. In those days, however, most people knew Paul Revere as one of many Boston silversmiths. Since the colonial period, silversmithing has remained one of the richest craft legacies in America, and New England is still one of the most important silversmithing centers.

The story of New England silver begins with the arrival of English colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries. These hardy souls settled in seaside villages and larger colonial ports like Boston. There they established trades they had long practiced in Europe, including silversmithing. These early settlers valued silver as much for its intrinsic value as for the craftsmanship that stood behind it. In the days before banks were well established, old silver could be traded as currency and held as collateral for debt. The medieval apprenticeship system the artisans inherited from Europe ensured that the craft was carefully regulated and that a healthy supply of youngsters would continue it. Silversmiths worked in modest workshops along the coast, turning out tableware and decorative objects from the most utilitarian to the most luxurious.

In the 19th century, several larger silversmithing companies established themselves in New England, eventually emerging as household names in American silver: Wallace, International Silver, Reed Barton, Gorham Company, and others. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, what were once artisanal enterprises outsourced their ever more industrialized production overseas, even if the design is still done from headquarters in New England. Today Lunt Silversmiths and Reed Barton are two large-scale historic silversmithing enterprises still producing in New England—from their old factories in Massachusetts. Apart from these larger silver companies, a small community of New England silversmiths still crafts traditional pieces by hand. However, those who reproduce colonial silver designs using traditional methods are limited to just a few individuals.

The techniques used in handcrafting silver have changed little since antiquity. In colonial New England, most of the raw material came from coins and outmoded objects that were melted and molded into ingots, or brick-like blocks of silver. Today’s artisanal silversmiths begin with sheet silver. When the silversmith is ready to begin a project, he creates the form of the piece in a process called raising. Beyond this basic skill stands a long list of specialized techniques and tools for finishing a piece. Small pieces like handles and spouts are often cast using a lost-wax or sandcasting process, then fit and later soldered to the piece. The final piece may be chased, polished, engraved, or finished with a number of other specialized and time-consuming methods. It can take more than a hundred hours to complete a single teapot or pitcher by hand.

Read more of this piece in Laura Morelli’s “The Genuine Article” at National Geographic Traveler…

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