Sterling Success

Brother and sister carry on a family tradition of silversmithing, keeping an ancient craft alive

December 07, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

The hammer hits the metal with well-placed strikes. Plink, plink, plink. In our mass-produced, throw-it-away society, it's tempting to hear the sound as the quaint signature of yet another dying art.

But at her studio in an old Baltimore carriage house, silversmith Martha Hopkins has a more optimistic view as she begins fashioning six silver bar measures used for mixing drinks.

To this 48-year-old artisan, the sound is the heartbeat of a craft that, while fading, still has a lot of life left beyond the nostalgic trappings of Colonial Williamsburg. She and her brother, whose nickname is Hoppy, certainly have no shortage of business.

Hand-crafting or reviving sterling silver pieces - cups, flatware, teapots, the occasional ceremonial mace - is as tricky and time-consuming as you'd imagine.

"It's the skill that takes years to develop and become really proficient at," she says. And all that methodical pounding and attention to detail demands patience: "You have to love doing it."

Anyway, jokes her brother, who's a youthful 50 and engages his kid sister in an amusing sibling rivalry, for them "it's too late to do anything else."

The two work side by side in the Mount Vernon shop their father opened 58 years ago. It's now one of just a half-dozen silver studios in Baltimore, they say.

Their father, Henry P. Hopkins Jr., got into the silver business in 1950. By then the field was entering a steady decline. Blame it on stainless steel. At the same time, silver pieces were increasingly being "spun," a mechanical process that is quicker and cheaper than hand-raising a sheet of silver into, say, a bowl.

When Henry was young, his father had wanted him to become an architect like himself. The son preferred art. And as luck would have it, the Hopkins family lived next to the president of Kirk Silver, an old-line silver maker admired for its style of raised decorations that came to be known as "Baltimore silver." An internship led to art school after World War II and a distinguished decades-long career making silver pieces by hand.

Martha and Hoppy - Henry P. Hopkins III is his full name - practically grew up in their father's shop, and both studied art. Except for added strata of clutter, the two-room workshop seems little changed, down to the rows of hanging hammers that from above resemble xylophones.

As Martha's coal-black eyes focus on her hammering, Hoppy appears to be goofing off in the other room. He's spinning a purple wax cylinder on a lathe, slicing off curly ribbons that pile up on the floor like a pompom. In fact, he's building a wax model that will let him to replicate a decorative baton ordered up by the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

At the moment he's working on one of the ends, which flare out slightly, employing a pair of calipers for precision. The finished wax model will be encased in heat-resistant plaster and baked. The wax will burn out; the plaster won't.

The hollowed space will create a mold for the liquefied metal. As a spring-loaded arm spins, centrifugal force will press the metal into the space as it hardens. The baton and a staff-like mace he will copy in coming weeks are intended for commencements and ceremonies. For Hopkins, it's a nice $32,000 job.

As Hoppy shapes the wax, his sister walks by holding the copper tube she's been hammering. She ducks into a closet-size room and lights a torch. Copper, like silver, must be periodically heated, or "annealed," to keep it malleable. She bathes the tube in the blue-orange flame until the copper turns cherry red, a sign it has hit 900-plus degrees. Then she douses it in water with a gentle hiss.

Next she'll move from copper to silver to make the six bar measures, which someone in Boston has commissioned. She says it will take her a couple of days to fashion each one from tubes of sterling silver.

Joining them in the studio is a visiting artisan, Kerry Stagmer, a tall, redheaded metal smith from Howard County. He's guiding a motorized tool along a handsome gold cross he made, smoothing the edges.

Last year Stagmer apprenticed under Martha as part of the state's Maryland Traditions program. Because Martha and Hoppy have no children to carry on the family tradition, they hope to pass on their skills to people like Stagmer.

As much as the Hopkins siblings enjoy making one-of-a-kind pieces, they mostly rehab older silver. Some is museum-quality; some merely has foil-thin coatings of silver plating. A full restoration of a tea urn might run a few thousand dollars, while simply making it functional can cost a couple hundred.

Not long ago, a Washington hotel called Hoppy about repairing its battered coffee urns. Two now sit in the shop, as dented as if they'd been kicked down the alley. It's not glamorous work, but each should bring in $600.

The siblings emphasize that they have separate clientele. Martha gravitates toward hammer work because she likes it, saying her brother thinks it's overly slow and methodical.

Hearing this, Hoppy objects. "It's not that it takes too long," he says, the pique audible in his voice, "just that sometimes the person wants it in a couple weeks" - as opposed to months.

The rivalry seems good-natured, but if there's any tension it's because he pays most of the studio's bills in return for free rent in an upstairs apartment. Martha lives in Northeast Baltimore with her husband, Patrick Duggan, whose family owns an antique shop. She can more easily afford to be patient.

After lunch, their father, hale at age 91, strolls into the studio wearing a bowler and a serene gaze that calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock. If he has a favorite child, he doesn't let on. He says he is proud of both and fully expects them to impart their skills to others.

"I taught them all I knew," he says. "They'll be masters, and they'll train people to follow in their footsteps."

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