It gives me a strange feeling to sit at the bench with a fine creation and see the same piece being worn in a photograph from the eighteen hundreds.
The Mayors Chain of Office for Wells is one of these pieces, and one that I’ve looked after, for my sins, for the last 20 years.
As well as being a bold statement of office, the chain has a lot of history and meaning – all depicted in little clues along its length. Scanning my eye methodically round to check for repairs and damage, I see engraved panels, some with ancient pictures and some with text. I see hallmarks, including dates and makers marks – evidence of at least three different regalia makers. There is a brightly decorated hand-painted enamel panel, intricately carved decoration, the names of some former Mayors and latin inscriptions deeply engraved and filled with rich deep blue enamel.
As I continue my visual journey around the 70 inches of chain, the links surprisingly reveal some stationary-cupboard essentials, and at times the piece resembles the office equivalent of a Bear Grylls utility belt! String, blu-tac, safety pins and paperclips lend their properties to support broken areas, no doubt hooked and linked up in a panicky moment before a twinning meeting with Bad Durkheim or a cheese factory visit. Maybe the damage followed a trip round a cider brewery? If only the treasury tags could talk!
My mission this week is to give the chain a proper health check and repair in a more professional manner.
The central pendant (or badge) is made from gold, with an enamel panel depicting the City of Well’s arms- an ash tree and three wells. At the back, on a gold panel is an inscription which says the piece was created and gifted by Robert Edmund Dickinson MP to the Mayor and Corporation of Wells in 1902. Ornate scrollwork surrounds the centre, and then various references to the City and the bishop of Bath and Wells can be found.
These details are particularly susceptible for damage while the piece is being worn. The velocity of 650 grams of gold and silver swinging towards a dining table is not to be underestimated, even dropping it on a hard floor will end in chipped enamel and a distorted mace.
The back of the pendant clearly shows the method of construction. Typically with pieces of this complexity, it is created from many individual components.These are made as separate entities, polished, finished and then pinned together without soldering so that they retain their shine and prestige appearance. Two miniature golden maces, the Bishop’s mitre, and a gold crown have been crafted and intricately decorated as whole jewels before fixing into place; The correct terminology for this construction is ‘bringing on’. A series of pins and rivets are made to slide into sockets or tubes on the frame and the ends flared and rounded like a rivet, holding them firmly in place.
The badge hangs on a chain which is much older (1862), and made from silver which is gold plated. Around the triple-chain linking are panels which are inscribed with various dedications. There is one to the Royal Charter of the City of Wells in 1201, one to the meeting in Wells of the Bath and West Agricultural Society and engraving of part of the front of Wells cathedral.
The main repair that needs doing this time is the replacement of a silver link that connects one of the badges to the chain. It had fractured through a while ago and due to limited time between engagements, I had to do a quick makeshift repair. This time I have a little longer to sort it out properly.
First I need to make a new silver loop, and remove the old broken parts with a jewellers saw and files. The work then needs to be prepared for soldering, this involves heating it until it is red hot, so a suitable fire-proof area is needed in the workshop. Thankfully the original makers have left small holes in the hollow panel, if they hadn’t, the air inside the closed form would expand on heating and the piece would explode.
For silver I always use a ‘soft’ broad flame which is best for this very conductive metal. A large area needs heating and silver very quickly transmits any heat away from the source of the flame.
Once it is the correct temperature, the solder flows and connects the loop and the panel. I can then breathe again while the piece to cools. Folks are often shocked to see that immediately after heating, gold and silver turn black! It’s only when it is ‘pickled’ in an acidic solution, that the oxidation is removed and the metal is recognisable again!
The gold plating is damaged by soldering, so I polish the area and it is off to a specialist platers to be re-gilded. When done, it will be a beautiful rich golden colour and I will set about re-fixing (‘bringing on’) all the small components including the enamelled painting which is also being restored where chipped.
The chain secures to the official cape with a series of clips which are hidden behind the panels. This takes the weight across the Mayor’s shoulders rather than the back of the neck, and allows the chains to spread properly and sit without slipping. Another job that I’m doing is making two removable clips so that it can be worn at a more comfortable position for Wells’ current Lady Mayor. Not everyone has the stature of Henry VIII, and the more delicate future Mayors will now have the ‘Petite’ option! A part of me speculates whether to add my own little inscription to the clips…perhaps ‘For the Greater Good…(Greater Good!)’ would be appropriate!