Making their Mark

Clerkenwell is, and always has been, a hand-engraving hub. Katie Treggiden learns about one of the area’s most intricate traditional crafts with the help of established EC1 engravers at the Goldsmiths’ Centre.

Hand engraving – everything from hunting guns to trophies and jewellery – has been a daily occurrence in Clerkenwell for centuries, but this traditional craft has reached a decisive moment in its history. In 2012, the Cut in Clerkenwell project (with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund) created an archive of 20th century engraving, which highlighted this enduring local craftsmanship. Last year the master engravers put on an exhibition and workshops at Craft Central to promote their intricate skills.

As a result, practitioners are busier than ever. However, around 40 per cent of the workforce is approaching retirement, according to the Hand Engravers’ Association, so it’s vital that the next generation is found and nurtured. With the oldest team member at 76 and the youngest apprentice at 19, Sam James Engraving not only represents a link to the past, but also to the future.

Having grown up around silver in his late father’s antiques business, James Neville studied metalwork and painting at Camberwell College. Spotting a potential career, his father gave him some tools and introduced him to the basics of hand engraving. He hasn’t looked back since. In 2011, he established Sam James Engraving with Sam Marsden: one of only three people – and the only woman – to have won the coveted Cartier award twice.

Five years on, the business employs five people, two of whom are in their seventies; the team has an impressive 150 years of Clerkenwell-based experience between them. “Why give up something you love?” says Eric, 76. “As long as your eyes work, you can keep doing it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, two apprentices, Jack, 24, and Louise, 19, are learning their trade. The company is based at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, in Britton Street, which runs apprenticeship programmes and training courses and requires its tenants to support new talent. “It’s important to pass the skills on to the next generation,” says James. “People are often scared about sharing knowledge, because they think they’re going to lose clients, but that’s a risk you have to take if you want to grow a business.”

The tools of the trade haven’t changed in aeons – carving tools comprise a simple column of steel set into a handle. “Differently shaped steel parts enable us to make different cuts, but they all work in the same way,” says James.

Wearing four-times magnification glasses, he starts by carefully scribing guide lines into the surface of the metal and then transfers a design onto the surface, or draws it freehand – a thin layer of grease creating a contrast. Moving the plate under his tool, he starts to carve.

“It’s just like a potato plough,” he says, somewhat understating the precision of the task. “You go in, you go down, you get your level and you move forward – and you try to get each line better than the last, every single time. It’s a quirk we’ve all got in this business – constantly striving to be better.”

It’s perhaps surprising that such an intensive craft is thriving in London, but Clerkenwell is still the beating heart of the business. “Rents are not cheap, but you’ve got everything you need within half a mile,” explains James. “In this building I’ve got a polisher, a setter, and two silversmiths, so we’ve got to be here. And I love Clerkenwell. I’ve been coming here since my dad brought me along to collect antiques from workshops, and I’ve worked here all my life.”

And as long as his eyes hold out, James isn’t going anywhere. “I love what I do,” he says. “You see something exquisite every day. Whether it’s a tiny stone in a piece of jewellery, a beautiful antique or just a really well-made piece of cutlery – there’s something that makes me say ‘wow’ every time I come to work. How many people can say that about their jobs?”