Layered silver collection by Nan Nan Liu. From left Oyster Box, Frozen Bowl I and detail of Frozen Bowl II. All 2015. Photo Sylvain Deleu

Polished performers

Claire Wrathall profiles four contemporary silversmiths — hailing from China, Belgium, Britain and Japan — who have mastered painstaking and time-honoured techniques to produce exceptional pieces in their own distinctive styles

Silversmithing is an ancient art. ‘Apart from electroforming and electrogilding, which were invented in the 19th century, all the techniques in use today date back to antiquity,’ says Harry Williams-Bulkeley, Christie’s Head of Silver. In terms of fabrication, form and function, contemporary works may therefore have more than a little in common with historic pieces and can look especially striking displayed alongside them.

‘Why shouldn’t you put a 21st-century centrepiece with 18th-century candlesticks and 19th-century salt cellars on a dining table?’ he says. ‘Objects have always sat well with other objects that have inspired them. The great English country-house silver collections combined pieces from different periods and styles. No great collection was created in a vacuum, and it’s a very 20th-century construct to try and curate a purity of style or date.’ To see historic silver from our next sale, see the upcoming lots at the bottom of this article.

‘If one thinks back to how Britain’s National Trust used to curate its houses,’ continues Williams-Bulkeley, ‘very often they regarded Victorian and Edwardian additions as something to be frowned upon and got rid of, whereas now they’re seen as part of the story of the building. It’s the same with silver collections. Even mixing silver with silver gilt can work well, creating a play of colour and different shades of light.’

‘This is work that never suffers from fatigue. I feel every sound of the rhythm of the hammer’s dance in the whole of my body and within my soul’ — Yuki Ferdinandsen

Williams-Bulkeley does, however, have one caveat for collectors of contemporary silver: they should ascertain how easy it is to maintain. ‘I once came across a centrepiece that had to be handled with gloves, which is completely impractical,’ he says. Silver tarnishes and needs regular cleaning every few months if it is on display. Cities like London, he warns, are not the ideal place for permanent displays of silver ‘because of all the sulphur in the air’.

If silver is stored carefully in a fairly airtight box, however, this need not be an issue. ‘Just stick it in a “tarn-proof ” bag,’ he says. These are made from fabric into which an oxidising metal wire, usually copper, has been woven as a so-called ‘sacrificial anode’. This draws the oxygen from the air and tarnishes first, thereby protecting the silver. It’s a concept used in aircraft construction, he explains, which uses sacrificial anodes to prevent corrosion in the airframe. ‘It would be wonderful if you could line strong rooms and safes with it.’ 

That said, tarnish can enhance the appearance of silver, drawing attention to the ornamentation. ‘When you put flowers in a vase,’ he says, ‘they can be tightly closed up at first. Then they’ll come out. And then they’ll begin to wilt. But they will be beautiful at every stage. It’s the same with silver. It starts bright and shiny, but as it begins to dull, it changes gradually, and you notice different details and qualities. It can be as much of a revelation as rehanging a picture.’

Here we profile four contemporary silversmiths, all expert in ancient techniques, yet each with a distinctive style, whose work stands to complement and be complemented by silver from other eras.

Nan Nan Liu

Nan Nan Liu was born in Luoyang, in central China’s Henan province, in 1982, and expected to become an accountant. A year into her degree, she realised it was not for her, so having secured a place on a foundation course at Dudley College in the West Midlands, she quit and moved to the UK, a country she says she was drawn to by its sense of humour.

Nan Nan Liu in her studio, and right, one of her works in progress. Photos Ana Cuba

Nan Nan Liu in her studio, and right, one of her works in progress. Photos: Ana Cuba

Her preferred medium was initially paper, and as a student on the BA course in jewellery design and silversmithing at Birmingham City University, she ‘made a lot of paper models, objects that became wearable pieces, some of them quite large’. They won her a bursary from the Goldsmiths’ Company, which enabled her to buy precious metal. ‘That,’ she says, ‘was the first time I was able to work with silver.’

Liu describes her work as ‘layered, involving a lot of soldering’; her pieces range from voluptuous seashell-inspired forms and vases reminiscent of a Slinky (the helical spring toy) to objects such as the Oyster Box (see main image at top), the edges of which have a striated quality so that it looks as though it has grown organically. ‘I love how the layers flow around the box as if it were water frozen in its tracks.’

But her work is also defined by her use of engraving, a skill she learned from the eminent English engraver Malcolm Appleby during the year she spent at Bishopsland Educational Trust in Oxfordshire, before taking an MA course at the Royal College of Art.

Nan Nan Liu (b. 1982), Slinky Beaker, 2015. Photo Yeshen Venema

Nan Nan Liu (b. 1982), Slinky Beaker, 2015. Photo: Yeshen Venema

‘It can take people quite a long time to master even straight lines, but I picked it up very quickly, and on the second day I was brave enough to try curves,’ she says. ‘It just felt natural to me, as though I already owned and understood the skill. I really enjoy doing it, and want to push the boundaries of what you can do with it.’ She uses her talent to reproduce shapes and patterns she finds in nature on the polished surfaces of the vessels she makes — images evocative of the age rings in trees, ripples in water, hair, even smoke.

Engraving, she explains, is wholly different from drawing. ‘When you shade with a pencil, it’s about building up lines, but in engraving it’s a matter of the angle at which you cut [which is determined by how you hold the tool] and the way the metal picks up the light. Silver is a very playful medium in that respect. That’s how you create movement and a sense of something being three-dimensional.’

For more see Nan Nan Liu’s website or visit The Mayfair Gallery

David Huycke

Even by the labour-intensive standards of other silversmithing techniques, granulation is a fiendishly difficult and time-consuming process, in which vessels or objects are created from thousands of silver granules — little bead-like balls or discs of metal that are effectively soldered together to build up a three-dimensional object. Dating back to the Bronze Age, it originated in the Middle East, reaching an unprecedented level of intricacy under the Etruscans, who used it to make fine jewellery.

David Huycke with one of his artworks, Pearl Globe, 2012, created from thousands of silver granules. Photo Claudia Hoppe

David Huycke with one of his artworks, Pearl Globe, 2012, created from thousands of silver granules. Photo: Claudia Hoppe

More than two millennia on, David Huycke is using the technique with even greater sophistication, making bowls that seem perfectly rounded on the outside, but give the impression of having grown almost organically within, creating a sculptural form that represents ‘the tension between order and chaos’. His 2012 work Edge of Chaos  (below) incorporates 23,850 tiny granules of silver, each just a few millimetres in diameter, and weighs nearly 4.5kg.

The granules are made using special tile-like ceramic moulds, in which Huycke, born in Belgium in 1967, melts little pieces of silver. These are then tumble-polished and electrolytically copper-plated. When they are heated, a process that takes place in a fireproof concrete mould, the copper melts and becomes the soldering agent that fuses them together. The application of a flame turns the copper to copper oxide, which is then dissolved in the ‘pickle’ — the name given to the diluted sulphuric or nitric acid used to remove the oxidised surface from metal after soldering.

David Huycke (b. 1967), Edge of Chaos, 2012. Photo Courtesy of Caroline Van Hoek Gallery, Brussels

David Huycke (b. 1967), Edge of Chaos, 2012. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Van Hoek Gallery, Brussels

These creations are not merely receptacles, but objects of beauty and wonder. Pieces such as Huycke’s polished or black-patinated silver Pearl Globes, with which he is pictured above, or his Fractal Piece (2007), call to mind infinitely intricate molecular models. But although his practice extends to tumblers and bowls in hand-hammered silver that are, in essence, functional, he is a thinker as well as a craftsman. The title of the PhD thesis he finished in 2010 at Hasselt University and KU Leuven was The Metamorphic Ornament. As he puts it himself, what fascinates him is ‘how and in what materials things were constructed, and what these things communicated in the way they were made’.

For more, see David Huycke’s website or visit Adrian Sassoon

Ndidi Ekubia

Ndidi Ekubia’s 22cm-high sculptural Sparkle Vase, below, which she made in 2012 and was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum the following year, may be made of silver (its base bears both the Britannia standard mark for 958/1000 and the Diamond Jubilee mark denoting the year of its creation, as well as the artist’s own initials), but its multifaceted surface looks almost like fur: the fineness of the chasing cries out to be stroked. So it comes as no surprise that Ekubia cites ‘organic natural forms’ as inspiration — hence her use of motifs that evoke woven fibres or plaits.

Ndidi Ekubia’s creations take inspiration from organic forms and her African heritage. Photo Sophie Mutevelian, courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, Londo

Ndidi Ekubia’s creations take inspiration from organic forms and her African heritage. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian, courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, Londo

‘I am excited by the sensual and rich forms that can be created in metal,’ the UK-born artist has said. The distinctive patinas found on Benin bronzes have also influenced her work. She draws on her own Nigerian heritage, too. ‘My artistic landscape has been determined by bold African shapes, textiles and food,’ and the ‘passionate family conversations’ she recalls from her childhood in Manchester.

As a student of 3D design at the University of Wolverhampton in the early 1990s, Ekubia began to experiment with metalwork, pressing sheets of copper foil between pieces of carved wood to produce reliefs. But it was an introduction to the art of repoussé, in which tiny rhythmic hammer blows from a range of chisel-like bossing tools are used to work three-dimensional reliefs and fine lines into the underside of the silver, that convinced her to specialise in silversmithing, a training that culminated in an MA at the Royal College of Art.

Ndidi Ekubia (b. 1973), Sparkle Vase, 2012. Height 22 cm. Photo courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, London 

Ndidi Ekubia (b. 1973), Sparkle Vase, 2012. Height: 22 cm. Photo courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, London 

Ekubia now prefers to work directly with hammers (a process similar to but less rarefied than chasing, which is the obverse of repoussé in that it is the outer surface of the metal that is worked), producing pieces that range from napkin rings, spoons, candle holders, bowls and vases to large sculptural pieces. The fineness of the detail is exquisite.

It is repetitive, painstaking work, noisy and intensely physical, requiring almost meditative concentration. Watch her at work — there’s a film on YouTube — and she talks poetically of having to find her rhythm, of gathering her energy and her breath, of ‘pushing doubt away, using my senses of sound and touch’ until she and her tools become one and the practice takes over. ‘Years of sweat and tears. Adjusting my posture. Reassessing the structure, the strength [of the metal]. Every hit counts as it overlaps. Harmony makes perfection.’

And so it does. Hence the number of British institutions in which her work is found, among them Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Goldsmiths’ Company and Winchester Cathedral, for which she was commissioned to make an ablution cup.

For more, visit Adrian Sassoon

Yuki Ferdinandsen

Born in Japan in 1958, Yuki Ferdinandsen now lives in Denmark. She grew up in Kyoto, and began her training in metalwork at the Tsuibu Metal Art School there before moving to the Guldsmedehøjskolen (Goldsmiths’ College) in Copenhagen and working in the workshop of Georg Jensen.

Both cultures are discernible in the way she plays with perceptions of weightlessness and heft, and juxtaposes textures — matt with reflective, smooth with sculpted. After nearly 30 years in Europe, she sees Japan through a Danish filter. ‘I want to sense these two vastly different cultures and allow them to rearrange naturally,’ she says. Her adopted country has taken her to its heart: her works are now found in museums across Scandinavia.

Yuki Ferdinandsen, born in Kyoto and now resident in Denmark, with one of her artworks. Photo Martin Mydtskov, courtesy of Gallery MONTAN, Copenhagen

Yuki Ferdinandsen, born in Kyoto and now resident in Denmark, with one of her artworks. Photo: Martin Mydtskov, courtesy of Gallery MONTAN, Copenhagen

Take Zen II (below right), a pebble-shaped, vase-like object in sterling silver, 15 cm high and almost twice as wide, which looks like a sea urchin that has lost its spikes, its surface covered in more or less regularly spaced raised dots.

This effect is created using a traditional Japanese technique called arare, named after the word for hail because it evokes a surface that has been repeatedly impacted as if by hailstones. In reality, the shiny dots, all 2,428 of them, are made using seven different sizes of tool. Each mark may take 20 blows to the underside of the silver, the front of which will already have been beaten with a chasing hammer to give it a matt texture. Though they appear to be regularly spaced, each is placed only by eye. (In other works, Ferdinandsen has used the Fibonacci sequence to determine where the marks are made.)

Yuki Ferdinandsen employs the traditional Japanese technique called arare  to create a sequence of regularly spaced raised dots. Photo Martin Mydtskov, courtesy of Gallery MONTAN, Copenhagen

Yuki Ferdinandsen employs the traditional Japanese technique called arare  to create a sequence of regularly spaced raised dots. Photo: Martin Mydtskov, courtesy of Gallery MONTAN, Copenhagen

Like Ekubia, Ferdinandsen works to a rhythm. ‘I enjoy every stroke, and every strike is followed by a step of the foot,’ she says. ‘This is work that never suffers from fatigue. I feel every sound of the rhythm of my hammer’s dance in the whole of my body and within my soul.’

Left Yuki Ferdinandsen (b. 1958), Origin, 2014. Height 17 cm. Right Zen II, 2016. Height 14 cm. Photo Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, London

Left: Yuki Ferdinandsen (b. 1958), Origin, 2014. Height: 17 cm. Right: Zen II, 2016. Height: 14 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon Gallery, London

Some of the artist’s work is purely decorative: Origin (above), for example, made in silver whitened by immersion in acid and then left unpolished, has the appearance of a giant seed pod or unfamiliar fruit. But she also makes practical objects decorated with arare — a striking champagne cooler in blackened silver (which in gallery terminology is described as ‘oxidised’ rather than tarnished), the arare  marks shining like studs; or a set of three dishes named Hanabi  after the Japanese word for fireworks.