On the sixth floor of the Tiffany & Co. New York headquarters, 73-year-old engraver Carlos Colonna works in a small, spare office just big enough for two people. His specialty is heraldry—the art of engraving family crests or coat of arms on silver and gold—and his rare books on the subject, such as Armorial général and Irish Families, are so old and thumbed through that they are held together with duct tape. Next to the viselike engraver's block, where Colonna secures rings and other jewelry, are his wood-handled gravers: sharp steel tools for carving intricate designs. They rest in a pile on a raised desk that Colonna stands next to for hours; standing while engraving, he says, helps ease his back pain. It is a modest office for a craftsman who has engraved silver and gold for the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson.
A native of Argentina, Colonna, a periodic employee of Tiffany's since 1956, practices the highest form of engraving. It is a singular skill mastered only after a lengthy apprenticeship and many years of experience (each of Colonna's two apprentices have been in letter engraving for ten years). On this particular day, Colonna, impeccably dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, blue monogrammed dress shirt, and a red tie, is working on a gold ring. He places a quintuple-magnifying jewelers' loupe over his right eye, picks up one of his gravers, and, with the steady hand of a neurosurgeon, makes a delicate cut. "This one is quite a challenge," he says, incising a microscopic star into the gold. On a client's request, he is re-creating an eagle, rope, anchor, and stars from a large naval button—no small feat. Colonna had to draw in pencil a perfectly downscaled version of the design on the ring before getting down to work. "It's a dying art," he says.
How true. Ask your local jeweler to engrave a baby cup or a picture frame and it's more than likely a machine will be used. But for collectors, automated engraving cheapens fine gold and silver. "A machine doesn't get in there deep," says 67-year-old William Gaskin of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, who has engraved the Kentucky Derby trophy for the last half of his 60-year career. "Sometimes with a machine cut, if you turn it in the light, you can't even see it," he says. "Hand engraving stands out."
Good luck trying to find an accomplished hand engraver these days. Tiffany is among the only large companies still employing them. Aside from Colonna, who works alone in the Manhattan office, 25 full-time engravers ply their trade at the company's Parsippany, New Jersey, office. The few dedicated craftsmen continuing the tradition are probably more like Gaskin: independent specialists operating far outside the mainstream of silver manufacturing. Jeffrey Herman, a silver restorer and engraver who founded the Society of American Silversmiths (SAS), provides information about six such artisans on the SAS Web site (www.silversmithing.com). But Herman has no idea exactly how many are left in the United States. "A lot of people work out of their basements," he says.
Gail Smith, who is listed on the SAS site, likes to start engraving around midnight, when it is quiet, in her small apartment in Williamsburg, Virginia. She learned the art of 18th-century engraving in a silver shop at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—one of the few places in the country where those interested in the trade can apprentice. While working at the foundation's gift shop, Smith spent a year begging the master engravers to teach her before they finally relented. Smith trained for seven years to earn her journeyman certification, after which she honed her skills for another eight years. Since then, Smith says, both the U.S. Mint and Tiffany have offered her jobs, but she prefers independent projects over those of a large organization.
Smith, like most other hand engravers, utilizes classic techniques. To begin, she rubs pig's grease or mutton tallow on the silver and sprinkles it with magnesium powder. To draw her designs, Smith prefers to use the thorn of a rose, which she either glues to the end of a stick or inserts into an architect's pen. "You can draw with a thorn all day long on gold, silver, or platinum and it will not scratch the metal," she explains. Gaskin uses a similar method, obtaining two-inch thorns from a bush near his house in Massachusetts.
After Smith traces a design, it takes her about an hour to carve three letters. Should she make a rare mistake, she polishes over the errant cut with a rubber eraserlike burnisher for up to an hour. "You can literally move silver," she says. "You can heat it up to the point where you actually change the molecular structure and move metal into the cut."
From silver martini shakers and cigar boxes to ice buckets and baby rattles, engraved items possess a personal significance that few other gifts can match. "People want to remember special events in their lives," says Colonna, who traveled with President Johnson to the Punta del Este conference in South America in 1967. Colonna brought along a collection of silver boxes, bowls, and cigar and cigarette cases from Tiffany. Whenever the president returned from a meeting with one of the delegates, he sent over one of the pieces as a gift, with a personal message engraved by Colonna.
Perhaps no one understood the affection for engraved products more than the late Malcolm Forbes, who gathered some 175 inscribed trophies and trinkets and placed them next to his prized (and now sold) Fabergé eggs and toy soldiers inside his gallery on New York's Fifth Avenue. Forbes called his collection "Mortality of Immortality" because he was fascinated with how all the pieces held a unique meaning during the owners' lives, yet wound up in flea markets or on the auction block. It is a whimsical accumulation of engravings, including a silver-plated oval salver with the inscription: "Presented by William Bradburn, Wolverhampton, for the best 5 acres of Swedes Grown with Bradburn's Manure, 1898."
Dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Forbes Collection embodies the golden age of hand engraving, a tradition pioneered by such masters as painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Paul Revere (1735-1818). As early as colonial times, newspapers hired engravers to do illustrations and portraits. During the Victorian years, major silver companies employed hundreds to engrave the tea sets and flatware of high society. But like most trends, it didn't last forever. And no other company offers an illuminating glimpse into the boom-and-bust years of hand silver engraving as does the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence.
Started in 1831 in a colonial house on Steeple Street, Gorham emerged as the world's largest silver company by 1890. It had a 350,000-square-foot factory on 34 acres with 3,000 employees and 20 engravers. "By 1880," says Samuel Hough, curator of the Gorham Industrial Archives at Brown University, "America was making the best silver in terms of design, construction, ornamentation, and innovation." Between 1876 and 1896, the company introduced new designs of engraved flatware every year, and at its peak, Gorham produced upwards of one million troy ounces of silver yearly—more than the output of England and Europe combined. In 1908 Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel ordered $85,000 worth of silver plate from the company.
Today Jeffrey Herman's office looks out onto the site where the old Gorham factory once stood (it was razed in 2002)—ironic considering he is the founder of the SAS. "Now there is just a Stop & Shop, a Hollywood Video, and a Chinese restaurant," he says. In 1991 Brown-Forman Corporation bought Gorham and moved it to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, explains Hough, who likes to tell a story relayed to him by one of the last hand engravers to work at the factory. "A new manager came in and complained to the engraver that all the engraved pieces did not look exactly the same," he says. The artisan, who took great pride in his craft, turned to the manager and nobly responded, "That's why they buy it."
HAND ENGRAVERS: CONTACTS AND COSTS
The engravers here, with the exception of Carlos Colonna, are posted on the Society of American Silversmiths Web site (www.silversmithing.com). The site's founder, Jeffrey Herman, also does hand engraving (401-461-6840). Costs vary between $30 and $75 per hour. Engraving a set of flatware starts at $300, and heraldry designs range from $800 to several thousand dollars.
CARLOS COLONNA of Tiffany & Co. specializes in the intricate art of heraldry and was the personal engraver for President Lyndon Johnson. At Fifth Ave. and 57th St., New York; 212-755-8000.
WILLIAM GASKIN has been practicing for more than 60 years. He engraves the Kentucky Derby trophy annually. At 29 Bonneau St., North Attleboro, MA; 508-695-5109.
HUGO C. HAKE finished his apprenticeship in 1943. An expert at engraving guns and saddles, he has done pieces for Roy Rogers and John Wayne. At 5722 Victorian Way, Springfield, OH; 937-342-0982.
RONALD PROULX has 16 years of experience and engraves hollowware and flatware for clients like Oprah Winfrey and Pope John Paul II. At 94 Main St., Chatham, NJ; 973-635-6500; www.handengrave.com.
J. C. RANDELL is skilled in heraldry and other detailed decoration. At 2206 S. Pierce Rd., Spokane Valley, WA; 509-891-5115; www.jcengraver.com.
GAIL H. SMITH completed her apprenticeship at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. She is a master of 18th-century engraving styles. 757-259-4628; www.hometown.aol.com/lunitns/hndengraver.html.