The craftsmen at the Puiforcat workshop practice an age-old art, passing on from one generation to the next an assortment of techniques for which skill is equaled only by attention to detail. Essential gestures applied in the service of exceptional silverwork.
Every piece of silverwork begins as a simple block of metal. Using hammers or mallets, craftsmen bend, bow and twist the material to give it the desired shape, be it flat or rounded. This first hammering phase consists of working the material from the inside out.
To stretch and flatten the metal, craftsmen hammer the surface with mallets of all shapes and sizes. By working the material from the inside out, slowly, carefully and vigorously, dishes and trays begin to take shape. Planishing is a rare and endangered form of expertise. Indeed, Puiforcat is among the only workshops to perpetuate the practice. It is thanks to this unique particularity that the workshop's master planisher Eric Popineau was granted the title of Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
The spinning lathe is used to give “formed” pieces such as breakers, ewers, coffee and teapots their concave (hollowed) or convex (rounded) aspect. The craftsman spins a plate of silver on a mandril - a tapered piece of wood that turns horizontally and determines the piece's final form - and uses a hand tool called a “spoon” to give shape to the object. Several passes are often needed for a piece to take on the desired contours. These steps are punctuated by “annealing,” controlled heating over the flame to soften the metal.
The “silversmith's trade” entails creating objects out of precious metals according to traditions of craftsmanship, but the “silversmith's art” consists of putting the finishing touches on an item. Thus, in the craftsman's lexicon, a silversmith perfects the object by adorning it with moldings, spouts, handles, hinges, feet or other embellishments, generally mounting these components using the brazing technique to ensure that the metal surface remains fluid and unbroken.
The meticulous task of chasers consists of decorating a sterling silver object without removing any material. To do so, the craftsman uses a variety of techniques to emboss the surface with small steel chisels simply called “chasing tools.” The desired design may be printed on a pattern and then reproduced on the piece with light blows from a small chisel called a “tracer,” specially designed for this purpose. The chaser may also emboss a decor from behind so that it appears in relief from the front. Finally, “deburring” consists of perfecting the surfaces with a small chisel or burin, eliminating imperfections in the metal while enhancing the object's recesses and protrusions.
The etcher embellishes an object with fine lines, curves or stippling that reproduce the desired figure, inscription or coat of arms: using a needle or bruin, he extracts thin shavings from a minuscule notch in the metal. The term “guilloché” refers to the process of adorning the surface of the metal with intricate and infinitely variable repetitive geometric patterns and designs, such as cross-hatch, star patterns, vermiculated designs and milgrain trim.
Once shaped and decorated, the works continue to the buffing and polishing phases to eliminate microscopic irregularities in the metal, giving the piece a “mirror finish” of exceptional brilliance. Craftsmen carry out these steps using brushes, buffing wheels and soft flannel cloths, choosing thinner and softer materials for each successive step. Finally, with age and use, silver masterpieces will develop their own unique sheen.