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Beyond Bare-Bones

My earliest memory of what one would call “silversmithing” goes back about 50 years, at a Country Fair in the Apuseni Mountains, in the heart of Transylvania.

An old Gypsy man sat cross-legged on the ground with an iron stake anvil in front of him, pounding rhythmically on a silver coin a woman had brought to him. He was holding the coin with a pair of pliers similar to the thongs blacksmiths use, only much smaller and had a wire-loop over the handles that kept it locked.

Once in a while he’d stop to check progress and at one point, he tossed the silver into a small pit filled with smoldering charcoal that I hadn’t noticed, and started fanning it vigorously. Meanwhile he lit his pipe and exchanged a few words with the woman who was watching him, her hands on her hips.

After a short while he pulled the silver out with the thongs and let it cool a bit before starting to hammer it again. By this time, it had changed its shape from round to oval and as he kept beating it, the oval was getting more elongated.

Back in the charcoal it went again, he lit up his pipe and out of a canvas bag he pulled a few items, a little bottle, a hand shear, a file and a small metal block with dimples of different sizes on its faces. After fanning the charcoal a while longer, he pulled out the silver and let it cool again.

With the shears he trimmed the ends of the oval and after placing it atop the metal block, used a punch and hammered in the center of it until it sank in one of the dimples. When he lifted it up, the silver had a small dome in the middle.

Next, he started beating it around the “horn” of the stake and soon it had taken the shape of a ring.

He asked the woman which finger she wanted the ring on and slipping it on, he marked the shank. Removing it, he bent it some more and then trimmed the ends with the shears.

He pulled some more things out of his bag, a small tin, a length of thin pipe, an owl and some pieces of what looked like used sandpaper. In the tin he must have had flux and paillons of solder and he applied some to where the ends of the shank came together. He then placed the ring on a piece of charcoal on top of the stake.

Unscrewing the cap off the little bottle, he pulled a wick out and lit it and while holding it close to the ring on the charcoal, he was blowing gently through the pipe, causing the flame to bend toward the ring, soldering the two ends together.

Lastly, he used the file and sandpaper to smooth and fair the edges, then rubbed it vigorously on a piece of felt that must have been charged with rouge, which polished the silver. Before handing the ring to the woman, he slipped it over the horn of the anvil and with the “owl” that was in reality a graver, he “wiggled” a border around the dome and cut a few “curlicues” on both sides of it.

I was so fascinated by the whole process that the memory stayed with me all these years and I am still amazed at the skill and tenacity of craftsmen in some African countries who create beautiful jewelry using a minimum of tools that would hardly qualify as “jewelry tools”.

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