Silverware artisans include designers and artists, as well as silversmiths, who are skilled workers and repairers of silver and a variety of other metals, including gold and platinum. Silverware workers manufacture metal utensils used at the table for holding, serving, and handling food and drink, such as platters, pitchers, forks, and spoons.
The creation and manufacturing of silverware falls under a number of other areas as well, such as industrial design, metalworking, commercial art and design, and machine operation. There are approximately 200 U.S. plants that make flatware (knives, forks, spoons, and other eating utensils) and hollowware (bowls, cups, trays, and pitchers), most of which employ fewer than 20 workers.
Silverware Artisan and Worker Career History
People have used an interesting variety of eating utensils throughout the ages. Dishes, flatware, and cutlery of all kinds have been made from wood, bone, stone, volcanic glass, shell, and a number of metals, including silver, tin, gold, pewter, and stainless steel.
Shells were probably the first rudimentary spoons. Primitive forks were just sticks with sharpened ends. And the first knives, sharpened with bone, wood, or stone, were used not only for cutting food but for warfare as well. By the Middle Ages, eating utensils became ornately decorated and more developed, according to each of their required uses.
With the invention of electroplating in the mid-18th century, the silver-plating industry experienced enormous growth in the United States. The process, which involves coating inexpensive metals with silver, became a common method for producing attractive tableware.
Silversmiths of the day were regarded as sculptors of sorts. Able to shape materials into pieces both attractive and functional, these artisans created not only utensils but bowls, creamers, teapots, pitchers, cups, and trays.
Paul Revere was perhaps the best-known silversmith in the United States (see the sidebar in this article for more information). A number of other craftspeople also played key roles in the emerging silver industry in colonial America. James Geddy Jr., for example, sold a variety of items that both he and other artisans made from 1766 to 1777. These pieces included silver flatware and hollowware, such as teaspoons, tureen ladles, cans, and tongs. Geddy’s brother-in-law William Waddill, another well-known colonial silversmith, provided engraving services.
Today, about 60 different kinds of craftspeople work in the industry, transforming silver, stainless steel, nickel, zinc, copper, and other metals into contemporary silverware. Regardless of the metals used, many of the steps in the silverware manufacturing process are essentially the same.
The Job of Silverware Artisans and Workers
Silverware manufacturing requires contributions from many different types of artisans and production workers. The process begins with flatware designers, who, after considering current market trends and the products offered by competitors, make sketches or computerized three-dimensional models of styles and patterns for new lines of tableware.
Once management approves proposed designs, they are given to model makers, who create handmade, full-size models of all pieces in the line, sculpting or carving them in plastic, clay, or plaster. Based on these models, the designs are often altered. Then model makers prepare models of the final version of the tableware designs, which serve as patterns for the molds and dies that will be used in producing the actual silverware.
Die makers construct dies, which are tools that can stamp, shape, or cut metal. These dies are used to create forks, spoons, knives, and other utensils out of flat sheets of stainless steel, sterling silver, nickel silver, brass, or other metal. Flatware press operators feed the sheets into presses that cut the metal into flat blanks roughly the same size and shape as the finished utensils. The blanks are then put into a drop press, which shapes each blank into the desired piece. Next, flatware makers, or annealers, heat (or anneal) the metal, softening it to help reduce the possibility of warping. Annealed flatware is then immersed in a chemical solution to cool and clean it.
Once all pieces have been thoroughly cleaned, trimmers use bench grinding machines or hand files to remove any undesirable irregularities on the surface and to round off edges in accordance with the design. Finally, the flatware is buffed and polished to a smooth finish by finishing machine operators or polishing machine operators.
While the process just described is used for most flatware, some pieces require the skills of additional specialists as well. The handles of many kinds of knives, for example, are stamped out as two separate halves that are joined together by solderers or hollow handle bench workers. The handles can be left hollow or filled so that the knife has more weight. Knife assemblers then cement the knife blades into the handles. They check the finished pieces for alignment and clean any excess cement from the blade using a metal pick and brush. Inspected knives are placed in a rack to dry, while those that are rejected are set aside on a separate tray.
The manufacturing process for hollowware items such as teapots, trays, and sugar bowls also calls for specialized workers because these pieces can be quite ornate. Most hollowware is made of a base metal, such as brass. The brass comes in rolled sheets, which workers cut into usable sections. Press operators mold the brass sheeting into the desired shapes using large presses. Then profile- saw operators and profile trimmers trim away excess metal from the edges. Other parts of hollowware vessels, such as handles, legs, and border trim, are made separately and attached by silverware assemblers using screws, bolts, pins, or adhesives. These parts may be cast in molds using molten Britannia metal, an alloy similar to pewter. Objects like goblets and candlesticks are stretched and shaped by spinners who use hand tools and bench-lathes.
Silversmiths and hammersmiths also create hollowware. Silversmiths are skilled craftworkers who perform many kinds of tasks related to the fabrication of fine hollowware, such as annealing metal, shaping it with various tools, adding embossed designs, and soldering parts. In addition, they repair damaged pieces using hammers, tongs, pliers, dollies, anvils, tracing punches, and other tools. Hammersmiths also repair hollowware using many of the same tools. Both silversmiths and hammersmiths work with not only silver but also a variety of other metals, including pewter, chromium, nickel, and brass.
A final step often used in manufacturing flatware and hollowware is electroplating, a process that uses electric current to coat a metal with one or more thin layers of another metal. Using the electroplating process, workers coat articles made of an inexpensive metal with a precious metal, such as gold, silver, or platinum.
Platers, or electroplaters, first clean unplated articles in vats of cleaning solutions. They may initially coat the items with nickel or copper, either of which allows the plating metal to attach to the base metal. Then electroplaters suspend an unplated item and a piece of the plating metal in a tank containing a chemical solution. When they run electricity through the apparatus, plating metal is deposited on the piece, creating an item that looks as attractive as one made entirely of the precious metal. At the end of the process, platers check the finished objects for thickness using such instruments as calipers and micrometers. They are also responsible for marking, measuring, and covering any areas that have failed to be plated.
Silverware Artisan and Worker Career Requirements
Although there are no formal educational requirements for silverware manufacturing workers, most employers prefer to hire high school graduates. Courses in mathematics, especially plane geometry, will prove to be valuable once you begin working in the field. Classes in such subjects as drafting, sketching, computer science, and shop are important for aspiring toolmakers, die cutters, machinists, and bench workers.
If you’re planning on a career as a silverware designer, art courses at the high school level are a must. In particular, classes in design, computer graphics, drawing, and drafting are essential. In addition, you should take a sampling of liberal arts and business courses, including English, marketing, psychology, and management.
You can obtain postsecondary training through technical or vocational schools, community colleges, art schools, or correspondence courses. Coursework usually includes applied mathematics, manufacturing arts, casting, enameling, metalworking, silversmithing, plating, and toolmaking. Specialized courses are often offered as well, including tool designing and programming, blueprint reading, and mechanical drawing.
If you aim to become skilled in a specialized craft, you should consider an apprenticeship, which generally lasts four to five years. Apprentices learn on the job as they work in a silverware plant under the supervision of experienced craftworkers. They also receive related classroom instruction. Apprenticeships are the usual method by which workers are trained in silversmithing, soft soldering, spinning, engraving, model making, drafting, machining, tool and die making, and a variety of other areas.
If you are interested in silverware art and design, you will need a college degree in a field such as industrial or applied design, along with training in fine art and the properties of metals. More than 100 schools offer a bachelor’s degree in metalsmithing and industrial design. Some colleges also offer master’s degrees in these disciplines. Many schools require a prospective designer to complete a year of basic design and art courses before they are allowed formal entry into a design program. Students enrolled in a design program spend many hours designing three-dimensional objects. They gain experience using metalworking and woodworking machines to construct their designs. Among the courses they should take are drafting, drawing, and computer-aided design.
To be a silverware manufacturing worker, you need to be precise in your work and have good concentration. You should also have good vision and manual dexterity. Depending on your position, you may have to handle repetitive tasks as part of the job. Die makers, in particular, should be extremely patient, since their work requires highly precise computation. They also need to have mechanical aptitude and physical strength.
If you plan to work in design, you must be artistic and creative and have an eye for color and beauty. To be successful, you should have a thorough knowledge of the flatware industry, specifically the manufacturing techniques that are used in production. In addition, you will need to keep abreast of current trends and develop work accordingly.
Freelance designers must be willing to work long hours. They also need to be organized, detail-minded, self-disciplined, and prepared for possible downtime.
Exploring Silverware Artisan and Worker Careers
A part-time or summer job in a silverware factory can provide you with an excellent opportunity to learn about the silverware industry. However, with relatively few plants in the United States, such jobs are difficult to obtain. For this reason, you may want to consider a position at a metal manufacturing or machining company. Such a position can offer you the experience you’ll need when you’re ready to look for a job in silverware manufacturing.
If you’re interested in silverware design or silversmithing, sampling similar activities will allow you to get a taste of some of the skills you’ll need. While in school, take classes in ornamental metalwork, jewelry making, woodworking, ceramics, sketching, and drafting. If these courses are not offered, check to see if your local community college or art center offers more specialized art classes.
You can also read professional magazines about art, design, manufacturing, and industry-specific topics to become familiar with the field and keep abreast of new products, trends, and developments. American Style Magazine and The Crafts Report, for example, are specifically aimed at craftsworkers, while Silver Magazine focuses on the field of silver and the products made from this material. MetalForming Magazine and other trade publications may also be of interest.
Of the 200 plants that manufacture flatware and hollowware in the United States, most are located in New England, particularly in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. The major companies in the industry include Gorham, Kirk Stieff, Oneida, Towle, Wallace, Lunt, and Reed and Barton, with four of the biggest firms accounting for over half of the U.S. market.
Many smaller companies are located in Rhode Island, Maryland, and other parts of the country. Among them are Regent Sheffield, Lifetime Hoan Corporation, and Tableware International. Foreign manufacturers in Japan, Brazil, and various European countries specialize in the production and design of silverware as well.
In addition to production workers, manufacturing companies employ both staff and freelance flatware designers. These creative professionals also work at independent companies that provide flatware designs to manufacturers, or for upscale retailers such as New York’s Tiffany & Co.
You can apply directly, either in person or in writing, to manufacturing firms that may be hiring new workers. Leads to specific jobs can sometimes be found through state employment service offices or help wanted ads in trade publications and local newspapers. If you graduate from a technical training program, you may be able to learn about openings through your school’s placement office.
Many newly hired manufacturing workers begin as buffers, trimmers, edgers, or assemblers. Others learn skilled crafts through apprenticeship programs. If you’re interested in entering the field as a tool and die maker, keep in mind that these specialists frequently move up from other related jobs, such as machine operators or machinists. (Tool and die makers are frequently considered advanced machinists.)
If you are considering the design side of the silverware industry, check out Innovation, the newsletter of the Industrial Designers Society of America for ads placed by companies seeking design professionals. In addition, available positions are frequently posted at the Web sites of industry-related associations, as well as on job bulletin boards at colleges and universities and through school placement offices.
You will find better job opportunities if you obtain some experience in the industry before applying for positions. A part-time or summer job at a flatware company or another related firm can provide such experience. In addition, you should assemble a portfolio of artwork and designs to show potential employers during interviews.
Silverware workers who can produce high-quality pieces quickly and consistently have the best chances for advancement. Unskilled workers can apply to become apprentices, learning such specialized skills as soft soldering, engraving, spinning, and toolmaking. Skilled workers may be promoted to supervisory positions.
Production workers with many years of on-the-job experience sometimes move up to positions as silversmiths or designers. Experienced die makers, in particular, may move into supervisory and managerial jobs. Others become tool designers or tool programmers in related industries.
In the design area, highly skilled professionals may advance to become lead designers or directors of design departments. At companies where the design department is very small, advancement opportunities are often limited. Instead of promotions, designers at these firms are frequently given more job responsibilities and higher salaries. Well-known, highly experienced designers with strong financial backing can start their own consulting firms or concentrate solely on freelance work.
Production workers and design professionals alike can also advance to other fields that require their skills, such as glass manufacturing, ceramics, and ornamental metalwork.
Production workers in the silverware industry are often paid an hourly rate. Alternatively, they can earn piecework or incentive rates, which are based on the amount of work they complete. Earnings vary with the particular job and skill level of the worker.
Some unskilled workers start as low as $6 or $7 an hour. However, in time they may be able to increase their pay by earning piecework rates. Overall, the average wage for these employees is roughly $12 an hour, or about $25,000 a year, although some can do much better. Earnings are generally higher for workers with special training and skills.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the average annual pay for general metalworkers was $26,950 in 2004. Die makers had a median salary of $42,740 in 2004. Most die makers averaged between $16.77 and $25.93 per hour, with the highest earners making more than $31.19 an hour. Silversmiths and other precious-metal workers earned on average between $20,510 and $37,280, with a median salary of $27,400. Industrial designers made median salaries of $52,310 a year in 2004.
In addition to their regular pay, production workers and designers usually receive such benefits as health insurance, pensions, paid vacation days and sick leave, employee assistance programs, and profit sharing plans. Workers may also be able to buy company products at a discount.
Silverware factories usually have open and pleasant work areas. Many of the machines that silverware production workers use are small but noisy. The work is not physically strenuous, but some jobs, such as operating punch presses, are monotonous. Some employees may be required to lift and carry heavy objects, but mechanical devices perform much of this work.
To avoid injury, workers usually wear protective gear, such as safety glasses, ear protectors, and heavy gloves. Although electroplaters, in particular, are often exposed to strong and hazardous chemicals, factories have ventilation systems installed to remove fumes generated in the electroplating process, and workers receive safety training, as well as special clothing, to reduce any possible risks or danger.
Silverware designers work in well-lit, quiet, modern offices or studios, at drafting tables or computer terminals. They often work alone but spend time consulting with other employees as well. Sometimes they visit production areas to get a feel for the manufacturing process or to check on the progress of their designs.
Designers may travel to attend meetings, seminars, or conventions or to conduct research on design trends in the market.
Workweeks for all silverware industry employees average 40 hours, though flatware designers may have to work additional hours to meet specific deadlines. Similarly, production workers are often required to put in overtime when there are big orders to complete. At other times, companies have very few orders and must lay off manufacturing workers for short periods of time.
Silverware Artisan and Worker Career Outlook
Employment levels in the U.S. silverware industry have been declining for years, and the trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Among the reasons for this decline are competition from silverware manufacturers in other countries (especially those in Europe and Asia), high prices for silver and steel, and a decreased demand for expensive gifts, such as flatware settings and tea services.
Like many other fields, the silverware industry is affected by the health of the overall economy. Consumers simply don’t buy expensive silverware more than once or twice in a lifetime. Many who are buying silver are increasingly price-conscious and may therefore choose simplicity over formality. On the factory side, many managers are cutting equipment budgets. In sum, reduced levels of customer spending and pessimism about the future of the economy are resulting in fewer opportunities for silverware industry workers.
On the technology front, the implementation of labor-saving machinery is resulting in increased productivity. However, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, lower skilled workers who manually operate machines are likely to find their positions eliminated because their jobs can be easily automated.
Despite the dreary prospects, some job openings will continue to be available in the field, but most will come about as workers move to other jobs or leave the workforce altogether. In addition, competition for these jobs will be fierce. Designers, silversmiths, tool and die makers, and others who have flexible skills and talents have the best chances for continued employment in their specific specialty. Workers who are willing to participate in continuing education programs and/or relocate will also have a competitive edge within the silverware manufacturing and design industry.
For More Information:
Industrial Designers Society of America
National Tooling and Machining Association