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Repoussé Silver

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: September, 2012, Page 36
Photos by David B Moore

This pair of sterling silver candlesticks from Wiseman & Gale, made by contemporary artisans in Bolivia, represents new pieces made in the traditional style.



history, Highlights and helpful Hints

The Statue of Liberty and the ancient Egyptian mask of Tutankhamen owe their form, at least in part, to repoussé, a technique used by metalsmiths to decorate any malleable metal, including silver, gold, copper, tin and brass. Using hammers, chisels, punches and other tools—often handmade by the artisan himself—the metalsmith works the reverse side of the metal to create a relief, or raised, pattern on the front. Typically, the workmanship from the reverse side is not covered up, so it is not hard to spot repoussé on metalwork crafted by artisans spanning centuries, countries and cultures.

“The patterns created using this technique can range from very simple to highly ornate, and when combined with other techniques, such as chasing, the decorative possibilities seem to be endless,” says Todd Zillweger, co-owner of Relics. Chasing is essentially the opposite of repoussé, where the front of a piece is worked with tools to depress, raise or otherwise manipulate the metal.

Repoussé was a very popular style for sterling silver and gold decor during the 17th and 18th centuries, Zillweger says. “Repoussé work is time- and labor-intensive, and coupled with the cost of silver and gold, it was, and still is, expensive.”

In the Western Hemisphere, the technique has roots in pre-Columbian South America. The Andes were (and still are) a rich source of silver, and repoussé was among the native artistic traditions. The tradition continued after Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro, lured by the abundance of silver, overtook the Incan capital of Cuzco in 1533.

“Being that the area was a prolific producer of silver, workshops were set up in the city center of Cuzco, and the handiwork was done there,” says Allan Bone, owner of Allan N. Bone Gallery. He notes that Mexico City and Puebla also became major centers for such work, as the Sierra Madres were and still are loaded with silver, particularly in Taxco, Zacatecas and Durango.

Left: From Relics, this late-18th-century repoussé German sterling silver vessel is supported by four male figures and topped with a stylized botanical finial. The lid lifts off, revealing a gold doré finish inside. Right: An 18th-century Mexican Colonial repoussé bible stand, from a private collection, features a more prominently raised element in the center; this supported the bible’s spine and helped preserve the repoussé work surrounding it.

“Repoussé was used for finer pieces, and the pieces were usually made only when commissioned by churches or well-to-do families, because of the time and effort required,” Bone reports. “It was used for decorative, secular items like sconces, furniture and adornments, as well as for religious items, like bible stands.”

Today, sterling silver pieces from that time period are still expensive, largely because few items remain. During the Mexican Revolution, silver and gold items were commonly plundered from churches and melted down, Bone states.

“Colonial silver in general is coveted because there is not much of it,” he notes. “It’s finite, and much of it is in museums.”

But there is still hope for those interested in adding a touch of Spanish Colonial style to their homes. According to Bone, a significant amount of repoussé was done using alpaca, or coin, silver. “There’s more nickel in the makeup,” he points out. “It’s still silver, but it’s not pure silver, so it’s not as expensive.”

Left: From Wiseman & Gale, these sterling silver Bolivian potencias are the type once affixed to staffs used during religious processionals. Right: From Antiques on Central, these examples of the highly collectible Kirk’s Repoussé pattern include demi-spoons, a cake server and a berry spoon.

In addition, new pieces made in the colonial style can be commissioned. “There are contemporary artisans who will craft a piece in the old style in an old design, but at a more accessible price point,” Bone remarks.

It’s a good idea to explore repoussé silver from other parts of the world, he adds. “If someone is interested in collecting, I’d suggest they start reading to find out what catches the eye. Is it Dutch? French? Are you drawn to decorative or functional items? It’s also worth getting to know the material—silver.”

One option that is more accessible, but still special and highly collectible, is a repoussé silverware pattern also called “Repoussé.” The pattern was introduced in 1828 by Samuel Kirk, a silversmith in Baltimore, Maryland.

The repoussé work on this contemporary Bolivian tray from Wiseman & Gale likely took hundreds of hours to complete.
“It’s a strong pattern throughout the United States, but it’s perhaps strongest in the South and Southeast,” says Nyla Kacer, owner of Kacer Enterprises, a sterling silver flatware replacement service. “Although the pattern itself is somewhat formal, it’s also one of the best patterns for everyday use because the pattern doesn’t show scratches. It’s a hardy pattern. And it goes with a lot of different styles of decor, and can be part of a totally plain place setting or one with a lot of details. ”

Another plus: If you’re looking for the basics, like forks, knives and spoons, they’re not hard to find. Collectors, though, are often specific about the maker’s marks they want. Between 1817 and 1932, the company originally founded by Kirk (now called Kirk-Stieff) has used some 15 different marks, so the age of the item can roughly be determined by that.

“There is a lineage of the Kirk company,” Kacer notes. “They’ve used different marks over the years, but the pattern has stayed the same.” She says the company also used to offer free monogramming, so that’s something to look for on the back of a piece. “Some people love monogrammed pieces; other people don’t.”

In addition to hunting for older pieces, collectors keep an eye out for ones that no longer are being produced. Kacer says it is fun to look for unusual items, such as bacon servers and sardine servers. “Strawberry forks and ice cream forks—what the kids call a ‘spork’—are popular, too. Generally, the more silver it takes to make a piece, the more it costs. But because these items are harder to find, they cost more because of their rarity.”

Other silversmiths in the Baltimore area also produced repoussé-style sterling silver tableware. In general, sterling silver hollowware is more difficult to come by, as many pieces were melted down when the price of silver shot up.
Silver in any form, whether new or old, “is great eye candy,” observes Bone. “It’s light-catching, both during the day and at night.”

From Antiques on Central, this English repoussé dresser set with tray speaks of more genteel times.

An example of less-ornate
repoussé work, this Spanish Colonial crown from Wiseman & Gale probably sat atop the head of a female santo.
This Victorian silverplate coffee pot from Antiques on Central is called a tippler; the pins securing it to its base can be removed to allow the pot to be tipped when serving.
 

What to Look For:
Sterling silver, an alloy of silver that consists of 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent copper or other metal, is often stamped “sterling” in the United States. Pieces made before 1860 will likely only have the maker’s mark. A stamp noting “925” (representing the percentage of pure silver) also indicates a piece is made of sterling silver.

Pieces without a monogram tend to be more valuable. As such, monograms are sometimes removed, which can result in damage to the item and reduce its value. 

A visual timeline of Kirk maker’s marks can be found at 925-1000.com/Kirk_Date_Code.html.

In addition to Kirk, other producers of repoussé-style tableware and accessories include Stieff, Jenkins, Gorham, and Schofield.

Where to Find It:
Find repoussé silver at the following Phoenix-area shops: Allan N. Bone Gallery; Wiseman & Gale; Relics; Antiques on Central; Arizona Antique Silver Co.; and Antique Gatherings.

Find repoussé silver online at kacerenterprises.com; silvercollect.com; nelsonandnelsonantiques.com.
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