Most jewelers and metalsmiths design their work to be noticed. They want it to stand out, catch attention, find a following.
Not Jeffrey Herman.
He is one of the best silversmiths in the country, and yet he believes his work is at its best when it’s invisible.
As a silversmith and restorationist, Jeff works on large silver pieces, things like antique cigarette cases, tea sets and flatware. He painstakingly removes dents, reduces tarnish and restores luster while paying careful attention to the original design—and erasing every sign of his own presence along the way.
In order to accomplish this feat of invisibility, Jeff has closely studied the history of silver, the way the metal works, and the ways smiths have worked it from one era to the next. This detailed knowledge allows him to anticipate problems that may arise and to bring each piece back to a state that is as close to the original as possible—right down to the patina.
Jeff revels in the job. Because restoration is a service, he has never wanted for work. "People are constantly breaking things," he likes to joke. And because he doesn't have a line or a collection that involves making the same pieces over and over, he is never bored. "I never know what’s going to come through the door," he says. "It's always something new."
What’s come through his door includes everything from silver flatware disfigured by a dishwasher to a Paul Revere tankard with a water spout soldered onto it to the Masters Trophy in need of a facelift. Each presents a different problem in need of fixing—and fixing problems is what Jeff is best at. He once contemplated a method for straightening his own left pointer finger because a touch of arthritis had left it just a little crooked. His studio is home to hundreds of tiny problems he has devised methods for fixing: saw blades organized in pill bottles, flux in a tiny aerator for a more even application, the list goes on and on.
This unwavering drive to fix things is what led him to restoration work 32 years ago, when he founded his business offering basic services to the jewelry stores in the Providence area. And it is what makes him so unmatched at his work. But Jeff got into the industry as most do, making jewelry.
He first became fascinated with silver (not gold, not platinum, silver—and only silver) in high school, when he witnessed a silversmith creating a teapot during a family vacation to Cape Cod.
He already knew he wanted to do something with his hands, and the physicality of working with silver, combined with its particular shine, captivated him. That was it. He set up a shop in his parents’ two-car garage and set to work making cabochon and pinky rings, which he sold to the girls in his class at New Bedford High School.
After high school, he attended art school, which led him to Gorham Manufacturing, one of the giants in the American silver industry. There he worked as a flatware designer and fully steeped himself in the knowledge that some of the country’s foremost silversmiths had to offer. He found his clan at Gorham, a group of lifelong friends and mentors who would help him develop his skills.
“I got to see every imaginable technique that a silversmith would see [at Gorham]”, he says. “I got paid to learn.”
Today it is Jeff who is one of the country’s foremost silversmiths. And while places like Gorham are few and far between in 2016, he is inspired to pass along the knowledge he learned there to the next generation. He founded the Society of American Silversmiths in 1989 to create a community in which traditional silversmithing skills could be shared and passed along with the hope that the great tradition of American silversmithing is never lost.
The fascination with silver Jeff discovered in Cape Cod more than 40 years ago still holds him today. He sees silversmithing as the ideal blend of art and science, and he still spends nearly every day trying to unlock its secrets, trying to find better ways to perform his act of invisibility on every piece that crosses his path.
You can read more about Jeff’s work and learn about restoration at hermansilver.com.
The culmination of 40 years of obsessive tool collecting and maintenance, Jeff’s studio is the sanctuary of a self-proclaimed tool hog. He invited us in to explore and shared a few of his favorite tools hacks.
Jeff’s board of buffs keeps everything easily accessible when he’s working on polishing a piece.
Jeff is an inventor at heart. He’s been collecting and making tools his entire career, hunting down tools he can modify at garage sales, collecting scraps of wood he can shape to serve a certain purpose, even collecting old railroad ties that he transforms into specialized tools.
Jeff’s hammer rack is the thing most people notice first when they enter his studio. Made out of an old shoe rack, it holds more than 30 hammers, each polished to and ready to use.
Jeff has been collecting, restoring and making metalsmithing tools for nearly 40 years. His studio occupies the first floor of a two-story home in a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. It looks like any house on any street in any town in America. But entering the studio is like walking through a portal and emerging in a metalsmith’s dream.
His location in Providence, what was once the epicenter of American jewelry manufacturing, gave him access to the tools and supplies the industry discarded over the decades. Though he still works at the bench he built for himself in high school, he has also never let an opportunity for a tool pass him by.
“My studio is absolutely my sanctuary, and these tools are my kids,” he says. “I treat them well. I know what they can do. I know if they can work against me. There are times I’ll pick up a piece of metal, and I know it’s not going to get its way. It’s going to do what I want it to do.”
Today he has a collection of thousands of tools, all arranged in precise fashion. Each one has a purpose and a story to tell.