I was always under the impression that women silversmiths were a rarity in history. The only Irish female silversmith I had ever heard of was Jane Williams who worked with her father Carden Terry in Cork. Her work is well known not only for it’s beauty but also for its price. I did some searching about online and dug through the books I had to see if there were any more women out there in the world of silver. And if not, why not?!
From the assay office records available it seems that there were a number of female silversmiths although most of these were in England. In Ireland of the twenty I found only five of these were based outside Dublin. Most of these women were in business around the 1700’s which is probably due to influence of what was happening in Britain when silver became more attainable.
Up until the late 17th century silver items were mostly reserved for the church and the extremely wealthy. This began to change when silver prices dropped as it was being imported from Central and South America. Now for the first time the middle class could afford silver household objects. The trade had to adapt to the change from large ornate royal and ecclesiastical works to simple functional pieces.
To meet this growing market wives and other female relatives of silversmiths were brought into the trade. Many of these women didn’t just work as retailers but were hands on in the trade while younger girls would be brought in to finish and burnish the pieces. The silversmiths were extremely protective of their trade so they imposed a fine on anyone who brought a woman into the business that was not a close relative.
Although women would have served their apprenticeship they would then have to work under their husband’s mark. They would only be in a position to register their mark when their husband died. The mark would be set in a lozenge shape because this was the traditional heraldic symbol used to represent a widow. The woman would retain this mark for her business unless she married again which would mean she would again work under her husbands mark. For this reason women usually only cropped up occasionally mostly when they were widowed and between marriages! The only time women seem to be on the records consistently was when they were reported for a craft offense. Often men would let their wife take the blame for some substandard silver they had produced as they believed the fine would be less!
It’s difficult to trace what role women played in the manufacture of the work as unlike artist silversmiths weren’t in the habit of signing their work. The pieces would be hallmarked using the company stamp and therefore unless the paper work of the company remains their maker cannot be easily traced. This is the trouble with hallmarks, while they are brilliant at telling us the who,when and where of the piece, the ‘who’ can often be misleading. Often companies bought in blank silverware that they stamped with their own makers mark. There is also evidence that marks were stamped over with other marks.
It’s a pity that these women who did go about getting their marks registered make up only a small percentage of the women actually engaged in the craft of silversmithing. Thankfully times have changed and we no longer need to be widowed to get our name out there!
Now that I’ve found them, I’m going to do some research on these women and the work they produced for a later post.
The images used in this post were taken from ‘Women Silversmiths 1685-1845’ by the National Museum of Women in Arts