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Making Their Mark (The Clerkenwell Post)

This article was written 4 years ago.

All copy as provided to the publication.

The UK’s hand-engravers have never been more in demand and yet almost half are approaching retirement age. Katie Treggiden catches up with co-founder of Clerkenwell-based Sam James Ltd, James Neville, to find out what the future holds for this exacting skill.

Hand engraving everything from hunting guns to trophies and jewellery has been a daily occurrence in Clerkenwell for centuries, but this ancient craft has reached a decisive moment in its history. In 2012, Cut in Clerkenwell created an archive of 20th century engraving, revealing the work of previously unknown craftspeople often for the first time. As a result, practitioners are busier than ever – and yet 40% of the workforce is approaching retirement, so it’s vital that the next generation is found and nurtured. With the oldest team member at 76 and the youngest apprentice at 19, Sam James Ltd not only represents a link to the past, but also to the future.

Having grown up around silver due to his late father’s antiques business, James studied metalwork and painting at Camberwell College. Spotting a potential career, his father gave him some tools and introduced him to the basics of hand engraving. He hasn’t looked back since. In 2011, he established Sam James Ltd with Sam Marsden: one of only three people – and the only woman – to have won the coveted Cartier award twice.

Five years on, the business employs five people, two of whom are in their seventies and count an impressive 150 years of Hatton Garden experience between them – “Why give up something you love?” says Eric, 76, “As long as your eyes work, you can keep doing it.” At the other end of the spectrum, two apprentices, Jack, 24, and Louise, 19, are learning their trade. The company is based at Clerkenwell’s Goldsmith’s Centre, which runs apprenticeship programmes and training courses and requires its tenants to support new talent too. “It’s important to pass the skills on to the next generation,” says James. “People are often scared about sharing knowledge, because they think they’re going to lose clients, but that’s a risk you have to take if you want to grow a business.”

The tools of the trade haven’t changed in eons – carving tools comprise a simple column of steel set into a handle. “Differently shaped steel parts enable us to make different cuts, but they all work in the same way,” says James. Wearing four-times magnification glasses, he starts by carefully scribing guide lines into the surface of the metal and then transfers a design onto the surface or draws it freehand – a thin layer of grease creating a contrast. Moving the plate under his tool, he starts to carve. “It’s just like a potato plough,” he says, somewhat understating the precision of the task. “You go in, you go down, you get your level and you move forward – and you try to get each line better than the last, every single time. It’s a quirk we’ve all got in this business – constantly striving to be better.”

It’s perhaps surprising that such an intensive craft is thriving in London, but Clerkenwell is still the beating heart of the business. “Rents are not cheap, but you’ve got everything you need within half a mile,” explains James. “In this building I’ve got a polisher, a setter, and two silversmiths, so we’ve got to be here. And I love Clerkenwell. I’ve been coming here since my Dad brought me along to collect antiques from workshops, and I’ve worked here all my life.”

And as long as his eyes hold out, James isn’t going anywhere. “I love what I do,” he says. “You see something exquisite every day. Whether it’s a tiny stone in a piece of jewellery, a beautiful antique or just a really well made piece of cutlery – there’s something that makes me say ‘wow’ every time I come to work. How many people can say that about their jobs?”

The Goldsmith’s Centre is Clerkenwell Design Week’s live events hub 24 – 26 May 2016 and will be hosting:

·      Conversations at Clerkenwell, the festival’s annual talks programme, including top speakers such as Daniel Libeskind, Sam Jacob and Theo Williams

·      A series of salons curated by Dutch designer Ineke Hans

·      A pop-up exhibition on the craft of contemporary goldsmithing

·      The launch of the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s new membership programme