So its Black History month.You might not know it, but there have been Black metalsmiths, particularly silversmiths and goldsmiths in America since the 18th century. None of this should be surprising given the extensive centuries old history of blacksmithing and bronze work on the African continent. We should be aware of the beautiful wrought iron work from South Carolina, especially Charleston. And yes we all know of, or at least should know of Winifred Mason and the Smiths, as I like to call Art and Bill.
Winnie Mason had a Greenwich Village atelier and was an active jeweler during the 1940s. Her handcrafted copper based jewelry exemplified the Arts and Crafts and Modernist styles prevalent at the time. All of her pieces, highly esteemed and collectible, were one-of-a-kind and after travelling to Haiti on a scholarship, she began to incorporate Voodoo motifs. Mason taught jewelry making and metalsmithing in Harlem after graduating with degrees in English and Teaching. She traveled to Haiti on scholarship to study local motifs and culture and married there. She sold her work through Lord and Taylor and other NYC department stores and was the first Black jeweler to sell her work commercially. Billie Holiday happened to be one of her clients.
One of Winnie Mason’s employees for a while was Arthur Smith. Art Smith, the iconic and highly collectible Black jeweler was born in Cuba in 1917. He also studied under Mason.
He was part of the modernist movement in American art jewelry and maintained a studio in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Plenty has already been written about Art Smith and there are many sources to follow.
Perhaps less known is Bill Smith, a Coty American Fashion Critics award winning Black American jewelry designer active in the 1960s and 1970 was considered a genius. He became Head Designer and VP for Richelieu. He was the jewelry designer for the Broadway production of Coco about the life of Coco Chanel and produced jewelry for Cartier, Anne Klein and others.
But there have been other, even more obscure Black jewelers chasing, raising, setting, designing, carving, piercing, filing, casting and fabricating in America. Evidence of some of the earliest instances date to the middle of the 1700s.
One of the better documented Black silversmiths is that of Abraham, an enslaved man who worked for renowned Charleston silversmith, Alexander Petrie in South Carolina during the mid-1700s. After his owner’s retirement, in 1768 Abraham was sold in a bidding war to another goldsmith. The spoon and coffee pot pictured below bear the AP mark on them and although AP is the hallmark for Alexander Petrie, it is unclear whether the items were made by him or indeed by Abraham under his “employ”.
Anyone who has ever researched the history of Black Americans knows that classified ads are useful and increasingly accessible tools for discovering the existence of and for researching the transactional nature of the lives of enslaved Black Americans. Through these and other sources we may educate ourselves about all sorts of craftspeople who toiled in bondage as well as those who worked as free people in colonial America.
My first example of these ads comes from a database housed at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The notation refers to an inventory taken from a deceased slave owner. Among the decedent’s property is listed an enslaved silversmith named Limus. Limus lived in Charleston, South Carolina during a time when Black artisans were numerous and in high demand. This entry dates back to 1743 and is the earliest I have yet encountered.
Using the new FreedomOntheMove.org site, a database of fugitives from American slavery, I found an ad in the New York Gazette, date May 8, 1758, in which we learn of a man named Jacob, who “understands the silversmith trade”. Jacob ran away from his goldsmith enslaver and the ad implores the public to help him retrieve his property. Another ad from the same paper, dated August 30, 1756 describes Duke, a fugitive who can work as a goldsmith. This source also has 185 listings for fugitive blacksmiths.
The third example is from the Pennsylvania Gazette, dated July 5, 1770. The ad informs the reader about a jeweler who is liquidating the contents of his shop and planning to leave the province. Among the unset stones, gold and silver he lists, also for sale, a Negro man who is by trade a silversmith.
We also have records identifying free Black silversmiths. One of the entries in the MESDA database refers to multiple persons of color listed in a Philadelphia directory as jewelers and silversmiths. This entry dates to 1818.
We can also find examples of he craftsmanship of these artisans. The spoons pictured here were made by Peter Brentzon, born in 1783, a free man working as a silversmith in Philadelphia and in the US Virgin Islands.
The jewelry trade is often not easy to enter. Skills are acquired through expensive schooling or through many years of apprenticeship. Learning the history of jewelry making by Black silversmiths and jewelers is no less daunting. I hope to shed more light on our predecessors in the trade as this important research continues.