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Silversmithing in Yogyakarta

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We had no idea what to expect. Neither of us knew anything about silverworking, and frankly I doubted whether I could really make a ring over the course of three hours. Our instructor assured us that we could.

The first step was to figure out what we wanted to make. Neither Caelen nor I are known for our visual artistry, and as we bent over the paper, rulers in hand and tongues stuck out in concentration, we looked more like we were proving geometry theorems than letting the creative juices flow. Ignorant of any of the obstacles in our way, our initial designs featured indented stars, rounded surfaces and other complicated elements that even an expert would baulk at. After some gentle prodding from our instructor, our designs were reworked into something we could actually produce, and we were ready to go to work.

A tray of silver strips lay in the centre of the worktable. All we had to do was to cut a piece to size. We measured our fingers, scored the appropriate dimensions on a suitable piece, and begin to cut along our markings with what looked like a pair of garden secateurs. As his silver strip veered sharply to one side, the pincers sliced into the metal and Caelen began to curse loudly. Maybe this wasn’t as easy as it had sounded. We ended up with two slightly crooked strips, but looking at the blood-free work table we judged it a success.

Raw materials in hand, our next step was to decorate the rings with our chosen patterns. I had gone for a rough beaten surface over most of my ring, and was issued with a selection of hammers to bang away for the next few minutes. Caelen’s chosen look required a lot more precision as he tried to hit a variety of patterned awls into the silver at regular intervals. Judging by the pained expression on his face the result was none too regular.

Next came the most exciting bit – the blowtorch. My design called for a raised strip separating the smooth, polished segment from the rough, hammered part. I’m excited by, but secretly afraid of, electric drills, hatchets and other unwieldy and potentially dangerous tools, so I was a little apprehensive as I approached the blowtorch. I tried to hide this as I nonchalantly took hold of the torch, working the foot pump to keep the flare at a searing 700C while taking care to point the shooting flame in the right direction. The silver solder came in tiny flakes, its 50% copper content ensuring it would melt quickly while the silver ring stayed intact. Miniature clamps held the two parts of the ring together, and as I applied the heat first to the surrounding pad and then to the ring itself, the different elements soon fused. After gingerly removing the clamps with a pair of tweezers, I dropped the ring first into water, where its heat dissipated with a sinister hiss, and then into a hydrochloric acid solution.

At this stage, all I had was a decorated strip of silver. The time had come to turn it into something rather more ring-like. I needed to bang it into shape, and looking at the pattern I had hammered into the ring earlier I was concerned at the damage I might do by hammering it now. Needless to say, the generations of Yogyakarta silversmiths had developed a solution to this pitfall, and this was a special hammer. Its head was a buffalo horn, with the strength to bend the silver but soft enough to protect the decoration so painstakingly applied.

It seemed as though I was nearly there. I had a round, decorated piece of silver. I could even put it on my finger. But as is so often the case, the final steps were more frustrating than anything that had gone before. It was time to pay the price for the appalling cutting earlier on. Before I could solder the ring, the to ends needed to be filed so they would fit together neatly. After some time of tedious filing, I realised that I’d been filing vigorously in the wrong direction, and they were further from fitting than they had been when I started. It was time for a salvage operation, and I couldn’t do it alone. Eventually our instructor decided it would do, but I had to admit that it was far from perfect. Still, I consoled myself with the prospect of another round of soldering. I’d got over my fear and was hugely enjoying my power-crazed wielding of the searing blue flame.

After yet more filing to round the edges, and sanding the smooth surfaces to a shine, it was time for a final acid bath. I had expected a shiny, gleaming object to emerge from the acid, but my hopes were a little premature and the ring came out looking much as it had when it went in. But there was one more step – the soap fruit.

The soap fruit has traditionally been used in Indonesia as just that – soap. Its cleansing properties extend to silver, and so we finished up our evening squatting in the yard, scrubbing our rings to a shine with the suds produced by this unusual fruit.

Thrilled with our amateur attempts and blind to their many flaws, we headed home; flashing our newly adorned fingers at everyone we met like a newly affianced girl drawing all eyes to her diamond ring.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of caelen soldering while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Picutre of measuring while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Caelen soldering his ring

Caelen soldering his ring

Picture of more soldering while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of more measuring while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Barbara pumping the flames

Careful measurements

Picture of Caelen's finish ring while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of Barbara's finished ring while silversmithing in Yogykarta Java Indonesia travelogues
Caelen's ring

Barbara's ring