Metalwork designers and silversmiths are specialist makers that work in a niche area of the designer crafts industry. Understandably, they work exclusively with metal. These guys design all manner of things, including ornamental pieces, decorative vessels and items for everyday or commercial use.
Metalworkers can use all kinds of metals and alloys, from gold, silver and steel to copper, bronze and tin. Silversmiths, of course, work mainly with silver, but also tend to be knowledgeable about other alloys and materials.
The profession is similar to that of a jewellery designer, except that the items that they produce go beyond jewellery alone. For example, these makers produce goods such as cutlery, utensils, decorative bowls, gravy boats, plaques, medals, trophies and even those little statues on the front of Rolls Royce cars.
A significant majority of metalwork designers and silversmiths work as freelancers. Some junior-level designers, however, do occasionally find employment with manufacturers and retailers of metal products for commercial use.
If you enter this profession, you’ll be utilising both manual and mechanised processes. Firstly, you’ll be conceptualising and creating designs in accordance with your customer’s brief or coming up with your own ideas.
Then, you’ll be preparing detailed drawings, specifications and scale models before the hands-on ‘making’ starts. This part of the design process is especially important if the actual production is done by other professionals.
Once the design has been finalised, you’ll be using manual and machine-driven processes to turn your design into a reality, such as combining one or more metals and alloys, annealing and shaping the metal in accordance with the design specification, welding, soldering, cutting and polishing. You may also finish off your piece using specialist procedures like etching, engraving and enamelling.
Salary & benefits
Salaried jobs are few and far between for metalwork designers and silversmiths, with low starting incomes of around £12,000 to £17,000 per annum, while experienced designers in permanent employment may earn between £20,000 and £30,000.
The vast majority of jewellery designers work as freelancers or run their own businesses. Their earnings depend entirely on their market reputation, expertise, experience and the type and quality of the pieces that they design.
Freelance designers have flexible working schedules, putting in as many hours as are required to complete their work. Since most designers work on client-commissioned projects, there may be deadlines that require you to do some evening and weekend work from time to time.
Salaried designers working on a permanent basis, on the other hand, tend to have regular working hours in accordance with their employer’s schedule.
While no minimum or mandatory academic qualifications are essential for entry into this profession, a background (degree, certificate or diploma) in metalwork, silversmithing, jewellery design or other similar craft-based qualifications can be very useful. These courses can help you refine your skills and get some credentials under your belt that will help you boost your reputation.
To thrive in this industry, you will need to gain a wealth of practical experience and put together an absolutely blinding portfolio of work. A certain amount of commercial awareness certainly wouldn’t go amiss either.
Sure, you could just hide away in your workshop, bashing away and creating pieces which please you immensely, but if people aren’t going to buy them, you won’t get paid. You need to know what sells and what’s really hot right now in order to tap into a niche market.
Regular participation in contests and exhibitions may also give you an added advantage by helping you to gain recognition and improve your skills.
Training & progression
Learning and skills development is a daily ‘on-the-job’ activity. However, jewellery designers may also improve their techniques and develop new skills by taking specialist postgraduate courses that are offered by a variety of academic and commercial institutions, such as the UK Crafts Council.
Career progression and success is primarily driven by technical and creative prowess, specialist or unique design approaches, experience and reputation, along with a sizeable and varied portfolio of work.