The relatively small but dynamic workshop on a trading estate near Hainault is a far cry from the glamour of Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade where their shop resides, but this is where the magic happens as a team of 10 dedicated craftsman beaver away both in the creation and restoration of high-end silverware. As well as restoring the silverware of many royal households worldwide perhaps what they are really known for is designing, making and restoring famous sporting trophies including The FA Cup.
Master silversmith, Kevin Williams, who originally set up the workshop over twenty years ago before it became part of Thomas Lyte, talks me through the kind of work they do.
It is a little bit like an artist that’s doing restoration work on a Picasso or a Rembrandt
He says, “We have been involved with most of the high profile sport that you see on T.V. We are very big on Rugby, working on the Rugby Sevens trophy as well as restoration work on the Rugby World Cup. When it comes to football, we have designed and made trophies across the globe. From South Africa’s Premier League trophy, through to 3 out of the top soccer trophies in the US.
“The Japanese FA is a client, last year we remade the famous Emperor’s Cup, but we have designed and made many of Asia’s biggest football trophies. Closer to home, we make the Npower Championship, Division One and two playoff cups. We of course very proud and privileged each year to restore The FA Cup and keep all the of Football Association trophies in pristine order every year. We alsoannually restore and make the Community Shield.”
When it comes to the FA cup the restoration work can be as simple as removing a few dents and giving it a polish but sometimes it can be more complicated. On occasions the Cup has been dropped and damage has been a little more substantial. Williams says, “One year the finial was detached from the cup’s lid. The first thing we had to do was reshape it to get it to represent what it looked like before it was dropped. Then we silver soldered the finial back on– the solder melts at a slightly lower temperature and you fuse the two together with a flame.”
They also restore silverware for Royal Households around the world. Williams says, “I’m pleased to say many Royal Households use silverware in the way it was intended. Everything you see, the candelabras, goblets, terrines etc are used at state banquets and of course they occasionally get dropped and knocked about. The great thing about silver is that, if you drop a goblet say, it doesn’t break, it only bends which you can repair, unlike if it was crystal. It is always a real honour to be able to work on a piece made by one of the great silversmiths of the past.”
Over the years Williams has had the privilege of restoring silver works made by Paul Storr, Paul De Lamerie and perhaps most famous of all, Peter Carl Fabergé. He says, “It is a little bit like an artist that’s doing restoration work on a Picasso or a Rembrandt.”
Thankfully in the UK, the hallmark system on silver can tell you a great deal about the quality and origins of a piece. In what Williams describes as one of the earliest forms of consumer protection, Assay offices test the purity of the silver before giving it their stamp of approval.
Williams explains, “They scrape the silver and give it the acid test, literally, and if it turns out to be silver then it goes on to be hallmarked by the Assay makers. The tradition goes back centuries: you’ve got the lion, which tells you it is standard silver, you’ve got the leopard’s head saying it is made in London (there are different marks for different regions). Nowadays you also have .925 which shows it is standard silver. (i.e. 925 parts out of a 1000) and then you have a makers mark which will tell you whose done it and the date letter which tells you what year it is from. This means you can trace it right the way back.”
As the silversmith had to pay for this process himself it also worked as a form of tax. Some silversmiths, even the great Paul De Lamerie, didn’t have their work hallmarked in order to avoid the tax. Williams says, “There is a lot of his work around that isn’t hallmarked but if you know his work well, you can tell by the traditional way it has been made if it is really his.”
Though there is still a demand for silver, especially in the sporting world, the number of silversmiths is dwindling. When Williams started out in 1971 there was a lot more opportunity for aspiring silversmiths. Williams says, “There were a lot more companies back then and some companies were employing 50 to a 100 people. There are only a handful of companies left now and we are one of largest, we employ 10 full-time silversmiths and two apprentices and that is one of the largest ones in the trade so you can see how it has really shrunk.”
I’m pleased to say many Royal Households use silverware in the way it was intended
Concerned that traditional silversmithing could die out as companies close their doors and apprenticeship schemes become scarce, Thomas Lyte has already begun one of the very few apprenticeship programmes in existence to ensure today’s skills are preserved for generations to come. Williams says, “Most of the silversmiths are from my generation, the wrong side of 50. If it carries on this way the craftsmen won’t be there in the future so it is vital we take on more apprentices now, in order that design, making and restoration continues in the hands of British craftsmen.”
Photo Credits: Lyte-1: Amit Lennon. Lyte -2, -3 and -4: Philip Dunlop. Others – Leo Kent.
For more information please go to www.thomaslyte.com.