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Saved Treasures and Silver Tongues

June 25, 1992|JANET LOWE

Ametalist's first love is his craft. His second, it would seem, is recounting tales of his trade.

Bill Cornell, owner of Silver & Gems in Oceanside, tells of the man who brought in a pewter tea pot.

"He'd been cooking tea in it on an electric stove for years. One day he let it boil dry and the bottom melted right out of it."

Cornell blanches at the thought of ever putting something as delicate as pewter on the stove top but grins when he explains how he was able to put a new bottom in the tea drinker's favorite kettle.

Jim Walker, founder of the Metal Repair Institute in Escondido, tells a story about the silver cup inscribed to Amber, on her first birthday in 1886. The cup was dented and scratched, but the owner wanted it restored for Amber's great granddaughter, Amber II, for her first birthday in 1986. Jobs like that keep Walker in the business.

Both Cornell and Walker are part of a small and dwindling crowd of North County craftsmen who can replate, repair, restore or preserve precious metal objects.

Although much of their work involves the likes of replacing hinges on silver tea pot lids, repairing spoons that have been dropped in the garbage disposal or taking a dent out of a creamer, their assignments can also be more remarkable.

Walker works on musical instruments, statuary, trophies and almost any other metal object that has value to a customer.

Cornell, who does a lot of work on jewelry, medallions and replicating antique pieces, is known for his skill in handling unusually difficult metals such as pewter or platinum. He also enjoys what he calls his "pots and pans work."

Dale Watkins Jr., president of Sheffield Platers Inc. on Date Street in downtown San Diego, is a generalist as well. He also does maintenance on the America's Cup, plus work on the buffet services for many of the major hotel chains.

Most customers find their metalsmith by word of mouth.

Locating the right person to do repairs on a prized item isn't always easy. There are no professional organizations or licensing boards for fine metalwork.

A reliable jeweler may be able to recommend a workman. The next best thing is to haul out the phone book and begin talking to the handful of people who advertise metal repair or silversmithing until you find one you trust. They are an unusually outspoken bunch.

"In some cases," explains Dale Watkins, "the newer stuff may be more expensive to replate than it was to purchase." He encouraged restoration only of antiques, heirlooms or patterns and brands of silver tableware that are no longer available.

However, he adds, for quality items, restoration is worth the effort and money. "A normal tea service set runs about $500 to re-silver," he said, "but could cost $3,000 to $8,000 to replace."

The cost of restoration depends on many factors, including the size and condition of the piece to be repaired or re-silvered. Some workmen price their labor at around $45 per hour.

Re-silvering a tray typically costs $5 per inch, measured handle to handle. The repair of a sterling silver spoon that has been dropped in the garbage disposal can be as little as $20, while it may take between $30 and $80 to buy a new one.

A re-silvered item may be more attractive and last longer--15 to 20 years with regular use--than the original because in re-silvering, a more durable triple-plating process is used.

When considering metal repair, Jim Walker says two elements must be considered.

"The first is the intrinsic value of the piece, and the second is the sentimental value," he explained. "Its intrinsic value is the weight of silver, as with a spoon. If you sold an ordinary silver spoon for scrap, you might get a dollar for it. But if it is a Tiffany spoon of collectible value, it would sell for over $100. If it was a spoon you had as a baby, its value can't be measured."

Walker says he always explains the difference to customers and recommends against mending a valueless piece. On the other hand, he has repaired ordinary stainless steel when it's part of a set that can't be matched.

Most metalists expect to have to talk to their customers, find out what it is they really want, and educate them about the possibilities.

"I'm sensitive to the difference between restoration and preservation," Walker explains. "Restoration is trying to make it look as new as possible. Preservation is making it look as good as I can for the age it is. If it was made in the 1700s, most collectors are horrified at the thought of polishing by machine. We do get things that old."

While machine polishing can restore a high sheen to metal objects, many owners, especially where silver is concerned, want some patina left on.

Part of the problem of getting silver, gold and other important metal items repaired is the few number of specialists in the field. Walker originally was a machinist, but had also done an apprenticeship in musical instrument repair, which gave him the basic skills for repairing delicate metal articles.

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