This is a story about humility. And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes. I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information. This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture. Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.
Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem. Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another. It was unbelievable. Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs. I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.
In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice. Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling. I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels. I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential. Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral – as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.
This wasn’t far from the truth. Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered. The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned. One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth. Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them. Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith. The gold work is expertly enameled in a champleve manner. In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.
This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing. As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how. Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work. In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp. It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own. Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer. Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools. And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.
Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches. Barbarians? Hardly.
How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?
How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?