Copper in the Arts

October 2008

Patience Required: Chasing Copper and Silver

By Michael Cervin

metal artist Alan Jones Metal artist Alan Jones

Photograph courtesy of Alan Jones

When Alan Jones asked his father to teach him how to chase silver, Jones's father said, 'No.'

"He didn't think I had the patience to do it," Jones said.

And patience is definitely required. The art of chasing, also known as repousse, is hundreds of years old and very few people still practice the trade anymore. Simply put, chasing involves pushing the metal (silver, copper or brass in most cases) and forming it into patterns using punch tools, thereby creating embellishments on a given work. Jones worked as a chef for a while, but tired of it and went back to his father and asked again. This time, his father said yes.

"That was a big day for me," said Jones, who is a third generation chaser. "He taught me how to do the chasing and we used to sit in our workshop in the garden in England just tapping away."

Born and raised in England and now residing in Dover, New Jersey, Jones caught the eye of Tiffany & Company, who brought him to the States where he was one of only four commercial chasers in the entire country. Jones left Tiffany in 1993 and now freelances for large and small companies, and individual clients. His company, Decorative Metal, is small and unassuming, but hammers out impressive work. It's a testament to his craftsmanship that he's been busy ever since. Jones will chase most anything.
"Antique silver goblets, trophies, tea sets, punch bowls, watering cans, baby cups. I can even do a door handle with a certain motif. I can carve that out of a solid lump of brass."

Not long ago he chased a brass sink to match the pattern on the faucets the clients already had in their home.

His most recent job? "I just did a piece for Harley-Davidson," says Jones. "I like to be diverse in what I do. This piece was an aluminum air filter cover for a motorcycle, with a skull with flames coming out of it and pointing a gun straight at you. It was great and the customer was thrilled to bits."

Additionally Jones has chased kitchen range hoods, backsplashes and metal tiles. Virtually anything of metal can be chased with a design which adds value to the object. Though silver is his main metal, Jones also uses copper. "It's such a rich material," he says. "I really fancy doing a copper bath. It's the big canvas I'm looking for."

But more often than not, he's working on minute movements. He chased a copper plate of a home, commissioned by the owner which was made with 14-gauge copper sheet. "If the material is too thin you can't punch it out," he says. The punch simply breaks through. He leaves the finishing of the copper, either a sealer, patina or accelerator, to his clients.

He makes most of his own tools and has nearly 1,000 different punches, of which 30 to 40 are the most consistently used. Most common of all is a tool called the snarling iron, an elongated "S" curved piece of metal. One end is held by a vice, and the other end allows the vessel, like a goblet, to be placed over the opposite end of the snarling iron. Then Jones taps the iron near the vice, which in turn reverberates down the length of the iron.

"It makes the snarling iron recoil and creates a dent on the inside, recording it to the outside. From that larger dent, you can make a flower, scroll, whatever," he says. Though Jones happily works in his workshop out of his home ("I've got a lovely workshop, the grounds are nice and deer walk by," he says) the big inspiration comes from the London Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane in London. The vaults, open to the public, house 42 different shops, mainly of silver. "When I'm at the vaults, I'm amazed by the quality of the chasing done a 100, 200 years ago. Everything is in perfect proportion."

Jones' wife, Ysela Caceres, is also a chaser, and in fact she's the head chaser at Tiffany. She regularly works on the Super Bowl trophy, something Jones himself used to do when he was with Tiffany. He's proud of all his works, but the tea set he did for President Bush, and the eight inch high solid cast gold camels he produced for the Queen, (Her Majesty presented the camels to a sheik) rank near the top.

"The more difficult something is, the more I like it. I prefer a challenge," he said.

Resources:

Alan Jones, Decorative Metal, Dover, NJ, (973) 328-0175

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