Silversmith Mary Eckels discusses her craft, and why it's a lost art

Gusterman's, a silversmith shop in Larimer Square, represents an old-world ideal of master craftsmanship. The shop, more than thirty years old, sells objects and jewelry created in-house, and the silversmiths, Mary Eckels and Jamie McLandsborough, will create whatever you want, in front of you. Their gallery is full of small wonders, reminiscent of a time when mechanical machines were obscure. Eckels, who is also the current owner of Gusterman's, talked to us about the finer points of what she does.

What's the difference between being a silversmith and being a jeweler?

Well, I'm a silversmith, but I generally call myself a jeweler, especially to people who aren't familiar with what a jeweler does. But a jeweler is someone who builds jewelry, and I'm technically a silversmith because of the versatility of the things I create, like small objects and figurines. But I don't only work in silver; we also work in yellow gold, white gold, rose gold, platinum and palladium, which is a platinum-family metal that is becoming more popular again because it isn't as expensive as platinum.

How did you get into silver working?

Well, I had a strong art background in the sculptural field, as well as a lot of drawing and painting. The gentleman working at Gusterman's as a silversmith was someone I knew from high school. He said, "Well, I fired my apprentice. Do you want to be my apprentice?" Fortunately, I was able to do the work without any problem.

Where do you get your silver?

We buy the metal from a refinery. There is one is St. Louis that I use and another in Gallup, New Mexico. We buy it in sheets, wires and casting shod, which looks like little BB-gun pellets.

What do you enjoy about being a silversmith?

I like manipulating the metal -- working with it, forming it and getting it to do what I want it to do. That, to me, is the fun part -- the actual interaction with the metal.

How long does it take to master the craft?

Well, you can get a reasonable competency after about five years; at seven years you get comfortable and don't have to think so much about everything you do; and at fifteen years you have a complete mastery of all the things you need to do. I am in my 41st year.

Are silversmiths rare? Do you meet many?

They are rare. I run into other silversmiths, but not very many who work at it full-time. A lot of them don't have to do it as a source of income, so they can work at their own pace and don't necessarily have a showroom or a studio. There's more money in gold, so they tend to go into goldsmithing, which is definitely more jewelry, as opposed to objects. It's hard to make a living as a silversmith.

What do you most enjoy creating?

I like everything that I'm asked to make and that I choose to make, but I would say that my favorite thing I get to do is miniature animals and small sculptures, because it's on the outside edge of what the jewelry industry normally contains.

Do you consider what you do art?

Yes, I do consider what I do to be artwork. We don't do just mechanical production work. We talk to the clients and find out what their desires are and what they want to see, and then we interpret that into an appropriate object. I think that starting out with a blank concept and then coming up with a way to represent that concept is a very artistic way of having jewelry come into existence.

What's your most memorable piece?

Every piece in the object gallery; they were all just wonderful things to get to do, and very fun things. But the gospel cover for St. John's Cathedral was the most noteworthy. It weighed over eight pounds and was made with silver. The cross that is on it is the same cross that, when the church first came to Denver, the priests would go to the different neighborhoods and place it in the ground to consecrate the earth.

That cross was done with the layering-up of metal to create a relief. And we set two pieces of Colorado lapis from Leadville and a piece of turquoise from the Four Corners area. It took about 150 hours to make. It's currently in the cathedral, and they carry it down for every service.

Why do you put your workspace in the store, where the public can view it?

I think it's nice for people to see how it happens, because it's kind of a mystery. Most people don't know which end of a screwdriver works. Usually when they come in, if it's a couple, the woman will shop and the man will look at the tools and watch us work. But we get people who are interested in learning how to become a silversmith from other parts of the country, as well, who are studying here in town.

When you tell people what you do for a living, what do they usually say?

"That must be fun." And it is, absolutely. I am very fortunate to be doing something that is so much fun and that I get so much enjoyment out of.

For more information or to view more artwork, visit www.gustermans.com.

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