The Evolution of Craft Series: The Tools of a Goldsmith

Written by Chay McClory, Master Jeweller

Since the beginning of time, humans have been working with gold all over the world. Despite the advances of modern technology, the way we fashion beautiful items from this precious metal has barely changed. Rolling mills may have reduced in size and torches have evolved from coal fire to gas, but the techniques and tools of a goldsmith remain largely similar to days gone by.

For over 150 years, Hamilton & Inches have been supplying consumers with a beautiful array of jewellery including the world’s first collection of 22ct Scottish Gold in 2019. Our Master Jeweller, Chay McClory shares his thoughts on the evolution of tools he and his team use in their craft today.

Ultimately, the true tool of the goldsmith are our hands. However, the traditional utensils I began using over 20 years ago are the same we, as a team, still use today. They give us everything we need to produce jewellery of the highest standard.

Of course, there have been several modern advances that cut down on production time or cost and these are welcome additions to our workbench. There was a time when goldsmiths would use coal to fuel their blowtorch; the process of keeping the fire hot was a constant battle. As melting precious metals requires steady and intense heat, in days gone by jewellers would have small bellows under their benches. They would use their knee to constantly contract them, helping deliver air straight to the fire.

This method, whilst effective in fuelling the fire, did not deliver a consistent heat and as time went on, was replaced by gas and French blow pipe. The use of the pipe allowed a continuous flow of air from the lungs of the jeweller to help the fire remain at a steady temperature. This laborious process is still used by some jewellers today but has been mainly replaced via gas and oxygen torches which are in place at Hamilton & Inches.

The introduction of electricity is also an obvious bonus. We work under perfect consistent lighting conditions with no need for natural light… although we do love our beautiful windows and views of Edinburgh Castle. We benefit from electric drills that save time and laser welding machines to apply unique hallmarks or initials.

However, the skills of a goldsmith are very rarely defined by an advance in technology, rather an artistic eye for detail and a steady hand. It is often said that a goldsmiths’ tools are an extension of themselves; the worn groove of a wooden handle, an adapted pair of pliers that you know so intricately they only enhance the quality of your work. These tools are so loved and trusted they will follow me wherever I go.

Step inside our workshop and you may be surprised how traditional it remains. The workshops have been in operation at 87 George Street since we moved here in 1952. Our workbenches remain the same style used for centuries; the iconic hard wood with curved groove removed complete with leather bench skin. Each bench is covered with our tools, the layout unique and special to each jeweller. Precious metals are still melted down in crucible containers. Ring shanks are hand-fashioned in traditional rolling mills and smoothed using emery paper. On the face of it, very little has changed.

Undoubtedly, the work of a goldsmith will continue to be ever enhanced by technology and the benefits it can bring; but the core of any precious item of jewellery we create will be crafted by talent, experience and traditional methods used for thousands of years.

Find out more about the craftspeople of Hamilton & Inches.