Is silver a dying industry?

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As British Silver Week gears up, one silversmith is concerned.

At the launch of British Silver Week last night, one of the country’s leading classical silversmiths described silver to me as a “dying industry”.

Looking round the event, it seemed to be anything but. Rather than being squirreled away in the bowels of the Goldsmiths’ Hall as it was last year, this year’s launch event was held in the light and bright surrounds of the glass-fronted Kings Place building in Kings Cross, also home to the Observer and Guardian newspapers.

The ground floor location made British Silver Week 2010, and silver itself, visible. The contemporary and classic designs on display at the event, which was still packed out with people when I arrived three hours after the doors had first opened, could be seen by passers by and large British Silver Week graphics made it clear exactly what was going on inside.

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And it is this visibility that the silversmithing industry needs, according to Steve Wager, a classically trained silversmith who worked at Asprey for 27 years.

The industry showed its evident support for silver at yesterday’s event by voting with its feet. Retailers came from far and wide, including Charles Bourne and his team from Urban Armour in Norfolk, one of the stores that will host a British Silver Week selling show. But are consumers on board?

Silver jewellery has been rising up the ranks in popularity, but this seems to be more about the price of gold making it an affordable way to buy into precious metals, and designers’ inability to work with gold due to escalating materials costs. But silverware is a different kettle of fish.

Wager mused that to solve the decline in interest in silver we need to get everyone in the UK to have a piece of silver in their house. How to do it, he’s not quite sure, although he is doing his bit for the promotion of silver by running Saturday workshops where people can learn more about silversmithing as they are taught to make a silver bowl and spoon.

And it seems that the BBC is getting involved. Wager got a call asking whether he would participate in a show it is working on about the silver industry.

But is silver just too old school? While some of the contemporary pieces on display last night – such as striking floral vases by British Silver Week ambassador Olivia Lowe – are fully commercial, how many people would buy a silver spoon or dish just for the sake of having a silver spoon or dish?

Wager told me about a bet he had with British Silver Week organiser Gordon Hamme some time ago. He bet Hamme that if he created two silver pieces, one contemporary and one classical piece, that the contemporary piece would sell for more, even though the classical design requires a much higher quality of craftsmanship and takes far longer to create.

Hamme rubbished his claims and accepted the bet, placing his faith in classic silversmithing. Hamme lost.

It seems that outside of niche orders, such as the commission Wager received for the silver heart piece he showed last night, the appetite for classical silversmithing has long ago died down. Wager says that he is one of only 50 classically trained silversmiths left in Britain and that the trade is on its way out.

It seems highly unlikely that young families or couples starting out will swap cheap Ikea buys for special-occasion silverware, but as we’ve seen vintage clothing and antique jewellery bounce back with a vengeance it seems unwise to rule out a return of classic silversmithing. And let’s just hope that there are some young silversmiths out there willing to take the time to train classically and save one of Britain’s longest-standing traditions rather than just rushing out contemporary finishes.

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