Written by Chay McClory, former Master Jeweller of Hamilton & Inches
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 155 years, Hamilton & Inches have been supplying consumers with a beautiful array of jewellery including the world’s first collection crafted from 22ct Scottish Gold in 2019. In this piece, we delve into the history of goldsmithing and discover our Master Jeweller, Chay McClory’s thoughts on the evolution of tools he and his team use in their craft today.
The History of Goldsmithing
Goldsmithing refers to the forging of the precious metal, gold. For centuries, it has been worked in order to create objects, artefacts and jewellery due to its availability, value and unique properties, including being ductile, malleable and possessing an appearance of great beauty. In fact, many original pieces of work from skilled craftsmen in ancient cultures around the world, such as Asia, Africa, Europe and South America today, form prized displays in some of the most famous museums.
The skills required to create these beautiful designs have therefore, also been around for centuries. The quality and intricacy of some of these original artefacts on show are proof that even long before modern technology, there was great possibility with just simple tools and craftsmanship. And this is exactly what has been passed down through generations, and is present in many of today’s fine gold jewellery collections.
However, while many of the tools and techniques remain the same, some advancements have occurred over the years, allowing for jewellery making processes to become more efficient and cost effective.
Goldsmithing: Then & Now
Having worked in the industry for many years, our former Master Jeweller, Chay McClory, experienced some changes to the tools and techniques used by goldsmiths. Here, he shares his thoughts on their evolution:
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. However, there have been several modern advances that cut down on production time or cost and these are welcome additions to our workbench.
Keeping the Fire Going: Then
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 knees to constantly contract them, helping deliver air straight to the fire.
Keeping the Fire Going: Now
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 also benefit from electric drills that save time and laser welding machines to apply unique hallmarks or initials.
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.
Mass Production of Gold Jewellery
While Hamilton & Inches remains a producer of fine, handcrafted gold jewellery, technology has enabled the mass production of certain designs, which would not have been possible in the past. For instance, everything from engagement and wedding rings, to pendants and earrings can be created in factories and then taken to production lines in order to provide customers with lower priced and more accessible goods.
However, expertly handcrafted gold jewellery often possesses a personal touch, thanks to the high quality and care which goes into its design. Therefore, it is still incredibly common for fine jewellery seekers to opt for items that have been created by a skilled goldsmith, particularly when it comes to sentimental and valuable designs, such as engagement rings and wedding rings.
The True Tool of the Goldsmith
Chay McClory goes on to explain the tools a skilled goldsmith really needs…
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.
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. Ultimately, the true tool of the goldsmith is our hands.
Find out more about the craftspeople of Hamilton & Inches.