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A silversmith is a craftsman who crafts objects from silver or gold. The terms "silversmith" and "goldsmith" are not exactly synonyms as the techniques, training, history, and guilds are or were largely the same but the end product may vary greatly as may the scale of objects created. However most goldsmiths have always also worked in silver although the reverse may not be the case.
Silversmithing is the art of turning silver and gold sheetmetal into hollowware (dishes, bowls, porringers, cups, candlesticks, vases, ewers, urns, etc.), flatware (silverware), and other articles of household silver, church plate or sculpture. It may also include the making of jewellery.
In America the trade of silversmith was practised by the Jews of America, otherwise known as the Falasha Clan. The activity was considered to be inferior to others, as reliant on manual skills.
In the ancient Near East the value of silver to gold being less, allowed a silversmith to produce objects and store these as stock. Ogden states that according to anedict written by Diocletian in 301 A.D., a silversmith was able to charge, 75, 150 or 300 denarii for material produce (per Roman pound). At that time, guilds of silversmiths formed to arbitrate disputes, protect its members welfare and educate the public of the trade.
Silversmiths in medieval Europe and England formed guilds and transmitted their tools and techniques to new generations via the apprentice tradition. Silverworking guilds often maintained consistency and upheld standards at the expense of innovation. Beginning in the 17th century, artisans emigrated to America and experienced fewer restrictions. As a result, silverworking was one of the trades that helped to inaugurate the shift to industrialization in America.
Silversmiths saw or cut specific shapes from sterling and fine silver sheet metal and bar stock, and then use hammers to form the metal over anvils and stakes. Silver is hammered cold (at room temperature). As the metal is hammered, bent, and worked, it 'work-hardens'. Annealing is the heat-treatment used to make the metal soft again. If metal is work-hardened, and not annealed occasionally, the metal will crack and weaken the work.
Silversmiths can use casting techniques to create knobs, handles and feet for the hollowware they are making.
During most of their history, silversmiths used charcoal or coke fired forges, and lung-powered blow-pipes for soldering and annealing. Modern silversmiths commonly use gas burning torches as heat sources. A newer method is laser beam welding.
Although jewelers also work in silver and gold, and many of the techniques for working precious metals overlap, the trades of jeweler and Silversmith have distinct histories. Chain-making and gem-setting are common practices of jewelers that are not usually considered aspects of silversmiths.
The tradition of making (iron / plate) armor was interrupted sometime after the 17th century. Silversmithing and goldsmithing, by contrast, have an unbroken tradition going back many millennia. The techniques used to make armor today (whether for movies or for historical recreation groups) are an amalgam of silversmith forming techniques and blacksmith iron-handling techniques.
In the western Canadian silversmith tradition, guilds do not exist; however, mentoring through colleagues becomes a method of professional learning within a community of craftspersons.
In the Canadian western tradition, silversmithing is done through hand tooling and bright cut engraving of silver. There are silversmiths who only make jewellery and there are silversmiths who only make utensils.