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History and evolution of Spanish silver work

In Spain, the art of silverwork has a long and prestigious reputation. Gold and silver were the country's economic resource. The public authorities were aware of the importance of silversmiths in the right use of metals, since their activity could influence the country's economy. The artisans enjoyed fame and prestige and were highly regarded in society due to the precious metals used in their work and the variety of objects they created: religious and cult pieces that gave them great respectability. On the other hand, the cost of the metals used made it an art for minorities. At the same time, the actual value of these objects caused many people's greed and resulted in the disappearance of very valuable pieces of art. Especially i n times of war where there was shortage of such metals, coins were created out of those objects.

To prevent the forgery of those pieces of art, the kings issued rules that stipulated the metal's assay (or assessed) value. In 1435, John II stipulated that silver's assay value (assessed) should be of 11 dineros and 4 granos (930 thousandth). This law remained until the arrival of the first Borbon king. Philip V ordered a serious control of precious metals and set the mark on 11 dineros (916 thousandth). In 1792, Charles IV changed the mark for small pieces that weighed less than one ounze (28,76 grams) such as clock cases, toilet articles, medical instrument sets, jewellery, medallions etc, and set it to 9 dineros (750 thousandth):.

In order to ensure that the law was upheld the assay marker was in charge of cert i fying that the piece he examined complied with current legislation . Once the piece was verified he engraved his mark and the mark of the region with a burin. Since the beginning of the 14 th century the mark of the assessor of the region and of the artisan on the objects were required in many silversmith shops. However, this not always happened. In some communities, the markers were assigned by the Town Hall. In the 18 th century becoming a marker required an examination by the Court marker.

In Spain, there are many region marks. The se used to be heraldic marks with a distinctive element of the city's coat of arms, and named with the full or abbreviated name of the city or both. The marks of the artisan consisted of his initials , or full name and surname or even abbreviations. Finally, t he marker would use his name as silversmith. However, there were many reasons for possible lack of marks: tax evasion, the fear of destruction of the pieces if they were not compliant with the law, and the inconvenience of taking the pieces to the city of the marker. The marks gave information about the artisan and the region. The lack of marks in the pieces didn't always mean that they weren't compliant with the law, but nevertheless, didn't give any specific information about the object's origin . However, the s tyle of the pieces and the documentation found can help us find more information about them.

The following region marks can illustrate what has been explained:

Barcelona, Burgos, Cordoba, Coruna, Ferrol, Madrid, Mondonedo, Orense, Tui, Valencia, Vitoria, Santiago

The master silversmiths had a solid cultural formation. They had knowledge of architecture (they were designers); they were good sculptors (many pieces included the sculpture); they had a good round knowledge of geometry (applied in the proportions of length and latitude) and arithmetics (to know about karats and the value of gold, silver, pearls, stones and coins); they were also experts in techniques used to treat the raw materials for the creat ion of the objects.

Silversmiths were in charge of the hallmarks. They had to verify frames and weights: the Royal Frame of Castilla. Fernando VI, in order to simplify this process, both marker and hallmark were unified.

Silversmiths gathered in brotherhoods or congregations, guilds or workshops. At the beginning, brotherhoods had a religious nature and were the first ones to be established. They were ruled by laws or orders; the most important of which was to help each other in case of need. Some other obligations of the members of the brotherhood w ere to pay a fee, to abide t o orders, to attend their patron's mass, as well as no t to argue with the other members. With time they change d and they added economic rules . Guilds or workshops were then born. They took care of the religious issues as well as the technical and professional ones such as training and formalities - they ha d to work with a master for some years and then seat an examination on the art of silverwork - they standarized the establishment of shops and the money they needed to open them. They also offered social advantages by giving finan c ial help to orphans as well as poor artisans and their widows. They also allowed widows to keep their husband's shop as long as it was under the direction of a master silversmith. Saint Eloy was the patron saint of silversmiths and the guilds were dedicated to him. Silversmiths living in regions that didn't have a guild due to the small number of artisans became members of other brotherhoods.


Hall, J., Diccionario de temas y simbolos artisticos , Madrid, 1987, pags. 96-102.

Saez Gonzalez, M., La plateria en Terra de Lemos , Lugo, 2003, pag. 23.

Cruz Valdovinos, J. M., Ciclo de Conferencias: El Madrid de Carlos III , "La Real Escuela de Plateria de don Antonio Martinez, Madrid, 1988.

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