Joseph S. Student, 86, silversmith, hand-chaser

May 19, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Joseph S. Student, who was one of the last practitioners in Baltimore of the ancient craft of hand sculpting sterling silver holloware, died May 12 of heart failure at St. Agnes Hospital. He was 86.

As a youngster in West Baltimore, Mr. Student became fascinated with a neighbor who was a hand-chaser at Samuel Kirk & Sons, the famed Baltimore silversmiths.

After Mr. Student expressed an interest in learning the esoteric art, the neighbor arranged an apprenticeship at Kirk's plant at Kirk Avenue and 25th Street, and the 14-year-old school dropout began his career in 1924 as all hand-chasers do: by sweeping the shop floor.

In the process he found his life's work and was paid $8 a week, with a $1 raise every six months to learn the craft that can take as long as seven years to master.

The French term to describe this silversmith style is repousse (pronounced repooSAY), which means "to raise from beneath." The Kirk firm, which introduced repousse in 1822, made more use of this technique than any other American silversmith.

The raised silver design on the piece, which was hand drawn on the inside, resulted when blunt tools, chisels and hammers tapped thousands of times by a hand-chaser formed a design.

Flowers, animals, human figures and landscapes were popular subjects for repousse pieces, which quickly became a trademark of Kirk and found favor with such American aristocratic families as the the Astors, Biddles, Lowells, the Ridgelys of Hampton (near Towson), the Pattersons and the Bonapartes, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette

"Joe was Mr. Kirk Silver and a master artisan," said S. Kirk Millspaugh, the last president of Samuel Kirk & Sons and a fifth generation descendant of the founder.

"He was a lecturer and demonstrator of hand-chasing and traveled all over the country for 13 years with the Samuel Kirk Museum Collection," said Mr. Millspaugh.

"He was a real character and a wonderful guy. People all over loved Joe, and he so enjoyed giving demonstrations of hand-chasing," said Charles Stieff, retired executive vice president of Kirk-Stieff Co.

"When I think of Joe, I think of his tremendous artistic ability and his warmth, which seemed to transcend and fill a room," said Meredith Millspaugh, who got to know Mr. Student when she worked for Kirk & Sons in the 1950s.

At his retirement in the mid-1970s, Mr. Student lamented that no one wanted to learn the trade anymore that had given him so much satisfaction.

Mr. Student was a certified gemologist and managed Kirk stores in Towson, Edmondson Village and downtown in the old Stewart & Co. department store on Howard Street.

"He had a caring heart," said Patricia Barber, former vice president of sales for Kirk-Stieff.

A bachelor, the Catonsville resident was admired for his wit.

"He always ended phone conversations with a joke," Mrs. Barber said.

He liked writing jokes, some of which he sent to Johnny Walker, the legendary WFBR disc jockey, who often used them.

In his leisure, he liked having a few beers with his nephew, Lindsay Benzel, with whom he lived in recent years.

A memorial Mass was offered yesterday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Monastery in Catonsville, where he had been a communicant.

He is also survived by a sister, Gertrude Wilson of Parkville; and several other nieces and nephews.

Pub Date: 5/19/96

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