Ornamental Separator

Silver Charm

The silversmiths celebrate 65 years at the Golden Ball — and the evolution of a trade

In 1991 and 1992, while preparations were underway for the construction of an office building in downtown New York, archaeologists at the site found the remains of 419 men, women and children. The site, it turned out, was the nation’s earliest and largest known African American cemetery, dating back to the 1630s when New York was New Amsterdam.

In 2003, the remains of these people were reinterred along with the artifacts that had been buried with them. These included cuff links, pins, buttons and a silver earring that had been in the ear of a young boy buried in the cemetery.

Before placing the objects back in the ground, however, the National Park Service wanted to have reproductions. They turned to Colonial Williamsburg’s tradespeople.

George Cloyed, Colonial Williamsburg’s master silversmith, recalled traveling to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study some of the objects. As he was measuring, photographing and drawing them, he looked up to see a cart bearing the remains of some of the people who had been buried in the cemetery.

“That was a real emotional eye-opener,” Cloyed said. “It humanized what I was doing and, for me, made a real connection with people of the past.”

There were hundreds of objects to choose from and Cloyed focused on reproducing some of the metal ones. He and his colleagues constructed buttons in pewter, brass, bone and fabric. Some objects were cast, while others were constructed from metal sheets and wire and then soldered together.

“Straight pins of tinned brass were a challenge,” Cloyed recalled, “as the shop’s staff had to research and perfect the 18th-century method of making pins in two pieces and mechanically joining head to shank. And brass cuff links set with enameled copper, in imitation of gems, required me to dredge up from my memory enameling skills I had learned 37 years earlier.”

While the silversmiths coordinated the project and made many of the items, the work and research was also shared by the founders, gunsmiths, tailors and blacksmiths.

A Change of Direction

The silversmiths’ work on the objects from the burial ground exemplified a major change in direction that took place in the silversmith shop in the 1990s. Before then, silversmiths focused on producing large quantities of goods to sell. In the 1990s, the focus changed to interpretation, scholarship and ensuring the work and the results were authentic to the period.

Silversmithing was among the first trades practiced in the Historic Area. The trade was initially plied at what is now the Margaret Hunter Shop and moved in 1955 to the location where 18th-century silversmith James Craig kept his shop, called the Golden Ball.

But while tradesmen worked at the shop, others were about a mile away at a workshop that opened in 1976.

“Visitors liked to see metal melted and poured into a mold, they liked to watch us draw wire [the process by which heavy wire is pulled through a wooden machine, making it longer and thinner], they liked to see us hammer and cut,” said Preston Jones, a journeyman silversmith who started working for the Foundation in 1975. “Finishing work like filing and polishing wasn’t as dramatic.”

So, in front of the public, parts of products would be made the 18th-century way. Then they would be finished at the workshop or behind the Golden Ball in the kitchen outbuilding.

The emphasis on production manifested itself in the way smiths greeted guests. “When I first came here,” recalled Cloyed, who began working at the Golden Ball in 1975, “we would say, ‘Welcome to the silversmith shop. If you have questions, feel free to ask.’ We didn’t explain what we were doing unless someone asked.”

By 1997, the Foundation had decided to focus on its core mission of education. The workshop was closed.

“In my time here, Colonial Williamsburg has become much more dedicated to doing things authentically,” Cloyed said. “And we also have become dedicated to telling the stories of the tradespeople who made things.”

Telling Stories

Among the stories Cloyed and Jones tell are those of the 18th-century silversmiths who practiced the trade in Williamsburg. There were about 15 of them between 1699 and 1780, while Williamsburg was Virginia’s capital. The most prominent were Craig and James Geddy, who practiced his trade just off the Palace Green.

Craig and Geddy, like most silversmiths, also were jewelers and watch repairers. George Washington bought from Craig a pair of earrings for Martha Custis, whom he ultimately married. Later, Craig made a pair of earrings for Washington’s stepdaughter, Patsy Custis. Thomas Jefferson’s account books indicated Craig repaired for him a microscope and an instrument case.

Craig and Geddy were also goldsmiths, as Craig indicated by naming his shop the “Golden Ball.”

Jones, who is African American, is often asked whether there were any black silversmiths in the 18th century.

“Much of that history is lost, since it was not written down,” said Jones. “There’s no record of enslaved people in Williamsburg working as a silversmith, but enslaved people worked in other trades, especially the building trades, and enslaved people worked as silversmiths in Petersburg and elsewhere in Virginia.”

Craig had arrived in Williamsburg from London by 1746, when he placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette saying he had opened a shop on Francis Street. He was probably the son of John and Ann Craig, both jewelers and goldsmiths in London. His ad said he made “all sorts of Jeweller’s Work, in the best Manner.” Craig lived and worked at the current site of the Golden Ball from 1765 until he died in the early 1790s. Some smiths, including Geddy, left Williamsburg during the war years, but Craig remained.

In 1769, to protest Parliament’s Townshend Acts, the House of Burgesses passed a series of agreements not to import goods from Britain. Both Craig and Geddy joined the Association for Nonimportation.

Craig’s shop was fairly near the Capitol, as were most businesses. Geddy lowered his prices in June 1772 hoping that would overcome any customer objections to his location. His advertisement added that “the Walk may be thought rather an Amusement than a Fatigue.”

Very little survives of the work done by Williamsburg’s 18th-century silversmiths, perhaps because — despite the hopes of the early settlers in Jamestown — no silver was ever mined in Virginia. Preservation was also made less likely by the fact that silversmiths mostly made small articles, though they repaired both large and small ones.

Among the few surviving works are a silver nameplate and handles that silversmith William Waddill made for the coffin of Lord Botetourt, whose remains were buried in 1770 beneath the Wren Chapel floor at William & Mary. Some works of Geddy have also survived, including a small saucepan and spoons.

Bringing the Past into the Present

In the absence of mined silver, silversmiths often took silver objects from customers and melted them down in order to rework the silver into something new. That’s still occasionally the case. Cloyed recalled a visit from the Rev. Francis Blair, the minister of an Anglican Church in Newport News, Virginia. Blair asked him to make a chalice for his church based on an 18th-
century example. Blair’s congregants donated silver jewelry, tableware and other objects to be melted down.

“That’s the kind of thing we get excited about,” Cloyed said. “We brought the past into the present.”

Today’s silversmiths follow the same basic steps as their counterparts from the past. They melt silver into a mold to form a solid ingot. Then they hammer it into sheet and shape the sheet on an anvil. They create holloware, which includes cups and bowls, by raising the sides of the sheet and bringing them together. They cast decorations or handles and solder them on. And they spend a lot of time polishing.

Though silversmiths using 18th-century tools and techniques can’t produce at the same rate as when the workshop operated, they still fashion goods to sell at the Golden Ball.

“That’s part of the pleasure of the job,” Cloyed said. “We’re not just teachers. We’re real people who are proud of our craftsmanship. So many people today don’t understand the concept of making something and making your living doing that.”

An Introduction

The Golden Ball has seven trades-people, including master silversmith George Cloyed and journeyman silversmith Preston Jones, each of whom has worked for Colonial Williamsburg for 45 years.

C. Lynn Smith Zelesnikar
Journeyman Engraver

“I began working for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1997 at the Golden Ball store as a sales interpreter. In 1998, I moved over to the engraving shop. There I began my work as a pantograph operator — a machine engraver. I was introduced to hand engraving at this time by Master Engraver Herbert LaFountain. In 2001, I began a 10,000-hour apprenticeship. I graduated in 2006. At Mr. Cloyed’s invitation, I joined the silversmith shop in 2007. Working here lets me demonstrate hand engraving in front of the public in an 18th-century production setting. I engrave anything produced by our silversmiths and founders as well as copper plates for printing.”

Bobbie Saye

Journeyman Silversmith

“I moved to Virginia in 2005 and worked on the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and then as an orientation interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg. I liked working with my hands, so I became a silversmith interpreter in 2006, an apprentice in 2008 and a journeyman in 2015.”

Christina Strum

Journeyman Silversmith

“As a kid, I always loved shiny, tiny and antique things. As a teenager, I resolved that if I was going to pursue art and scholarship, I didn’t want to starve in a garret. Eventually I attained degrees in metalsmithing and art history at Old Dominion University. Near the end of my time there, a professor informed me of a much-coveted opening in the silversmith shop. I didn’t know a fraction of what I was going to absorb over the next 11 years and I learn something new every day. But the best part is that I get to share it with anyone who wants to know.”

Parker Brown

Apprentice Silversmith

“I first became interested in silversmithing through the wider study of metalsmithing in high school under a teacher who was also a silversmith. I had always had a fascination with anyone capable of producing objects out of metal. My fascination with history has always been tied to material culture. I do not just want to know how they did it; I want to do it myself! My interests resulted in a BFA in metalsmithing in 2005 and later an MFA in metalsmithing in 2010. In 2014, I eventually found myself in a very lucky summer internship at the silversmith shop and I became an apprentice later that year.”

William Fleming
Apprentice Silversmith

“I started working for Colonial Williamsburg in 2015 as an orientation interpreter and a year later joined the sites interpreters. I was studying maritime archaeology at the time and was interested in colonial-era shipping, and I would often bring that research into my interpretation. After a while, I missed working with my hands, so I applied to the silversmiths and joined the shop in 2017 in order to have the best of both worlds.”

Preston Jones has been practicing the silversmith trade in the Historic Area for decades.

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