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At Margolis Silver

January 4, 2018
by the gentle author

Kudret Yirtici, Polisher

There are still traditional manufacturing industries thriving in the East End – as Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I were delighted to discover when we visited Margolis Silver, market-leaders in silverware, at their factory in London Fields recently. Here we found a band of highly-skilled silversmiths with proud dirty faces, designing and manufacturing silverware for the swankiest West End hotels, restaurants and clubs, employing techniques that have not changed in centuries.

Upstairs in his solitary garret, we met the most senior member of staff, Albert Alot, a virtuoso metal spinner of a lifetime’s experience who can take a disc of copper and expertly spin it into a cup on a lathe with all the flamboyant magic of Rumplestiltskin. Down below, led by Richard Courcha whose father started the company half a century ago, we found the polishers at work, cleaning the copper vessels prior to plating. With their grimy visages and overalls topped off by a characterful array of hats, they were a charismatic band who generously welcomed us into their lair and tolerated our nosy questions with patience and good humour. Next door, Chloe Robertson supervised the electroplating, first with nickel and then silver, cheerfully presiding over two enormous boiling vats of steaming hydrochloric acid and livid green arsenic bubbling away.

There is a compelling alchemy to this fascinating process which, thanks to immense skills of the silversmiths, transforms the raw material of copper sheets into sophisticated gleaming silverware, sufficient to grace the grandest tables with its luxurious allure. It is exceptional to visit a workshop such as this, where everyone takes such obvious delight in their collective achievement.

Away from the workshop, Valerie Lucas runs an office stacked to the roof with myriad examples of silverware, teapots, coffeepots, condiments, basins, bowls and plates of every imaginable design. Here we met director Lawrence Perovetz, who is of Huguenot descent and cherishes the living tradition of Huguenot silversmiths in London through his work.

Yet all these people, machines and processes are crammed into a tiny factory that few in London Fields even know exists. As Polisher Pascal Fernandes quipped, summing it up succinctly for me, “It’s a little house of treasures this is!”

Arthur Alot – “I’m from Plaistow and I was born in the war. I’ve been doing this all my life, since I did an apprenticeship down at Shaw’s Metal Spinners in Stratford years and years ago. They’ve gone now. Years ago in the twenties,  the old spinners used to walk in dressed in spats and whatever. I moved to a factory in the Holloway Rd where I met this spinner, a proper one, who had come out of Hungary at the time of the revolution. He had been taught by the sixth best spinner in Hungary and he taught me and my brothers. I have taught a few who are starting on their own.”

Arthur spins a cup out of a disc of copper

Arthur Alot, Metal Spinner

Richard Courcha – “I am the factory manager and I do polishing. It was my father, Thomas Courcha’s business, he started it in 1968. He was a metal polisher and he went into partnership with Johnny Mansfield in a little factory in North London and then, when this place came up for grabs in 1968, they moved in. The company was called TC Plating Ltd – Tommy Courcha Plating in full.

I came here all the time as child, every other Saturday in the back of my dad’s old red Escort van. It was a bustling place. I used to help out with the makers, there were ten makers working here during the late seventies. In those days we manufactured for the retail market, producing gallery trays, punchbowls and wine coolers that were sold in the West End. Designers would bring in their drawings, and my dad and his team would make the moulds and conjure them up.

The retail side dropped off in the eighties because of cheap products coming in from India. So then we moved into restoring antique silverware. About ten years ago, it all changed again. This was around the time I met Lawrence who had this idea of supplying hotels and now we are joined at the hip.

I came here to work in 1982. I did not have any plans to do anything else. It was a bustling business and my brother was here as well until he retired. I suppose I like the job. It is what I do. It is in my blood. It is what I grew up with. After thirty-six years, I know how to do making.”

Collin Foru-berkoh, Polisher

Bradley Hitchman – “I am a silversmith and maker of thirty-four years. When I was thirteen, I moved to Morden and the next door neighbour owned this company. A few years after I left school, I was doing a training scheme to be an engineer but I thought ‘Silversmith’ sounded more glamorous than ‘Engineer.’ So I came here. It was a struggle at first. It was very repetitive, hundreds of this, thousands of that. The same thing over and over again. But when it comes to doing it now it is second nature. Once I got the hang of things and things came easier, it was no longer boring – you just got on with it. I have always liked working with my hands. I like the creative side of this work, you can take a piece of metal and turn it into something – like this dessert trolley! Pretty much everything here is bespoke. ”

Pascal Fernandes – “I am a polisher and a finisher. Way back in 1976, I got an apprenticeship as a polisher and I was taught by three very good people. It is very dangerous work because the machines show you no mercy, they can take your hand off. At first, I found it boring but over the years you learn from other people who might do something differently. You do not necessarily copy them because each has an art of their own. My way is the way I was taught originally by a man who was taught by the best. It is creative and I took it as my living, so I must like it. You learn your lessons as you go along. You have got to take the good with the bad.”

Chloe Robertson – “I am a maker and I do electroplating as well. I did a degree in Design in Liverpool and picked working with metal and wood. I won ten thousand pounds start-up business funding and I funded myself to go to Bishopsland which is a post-graduate college for silversmiths and jewellers, and then I won an award as ‘Woodturner of the Year’ which meant I got a free workshop for a year. Then this job popped up and I have been here two years. I am the newbie, but I love this work and I intend to stay at least ten years. It is fascinating working alongside these guys who have been here for all these years, I learn something new every day. Some of these techniques they know are mind-boggling.”

Chloe plates the copper with nickel in a vat of boiling arsenic

Chloe dries the plated objects in a box of grain

Lawrence Perovetz, Director & Valerie Lucas, Secretary, Margolis Silver

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Glenn permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing this real-world delight, right on our doorstep.

  2. January 4, 2018

    What a fascinating place you visited! Valerie

  3. StephenJ permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Excellent story, many thanks.

    I noticed that with one exception, none of those involved are university trained experts, the one exception being Chloe, who seems to be happy learning from the great unwashed artisans, and in it for the long haul.

    Kudos to them, all of them.

  4. John Barrett permalink
    January 4, 2018

    GA has well covered silver smithing today, this is a noble trade with never ending spinning and forming design tools used for the modern designs. These design are a delight to the eye and gain in value over the years. I also like Georgian silver designs with reverse fluting so delicate I know its going back in time. Lets face it silverware is still very collectible that final buffing-up makes it keep it bright and enjoy. Best wishes to the artisans who’s hard work make all this possible; I’m for you. John a bus pass poet. PS you could go one step up and go for gold

  5. January 4, 2018

    Nice to see a labour-intensive artisan business that’s thriving.

  6. January 4, 2018

    I love posts like this, where I discover an unknown-to-me workplace. In this crazy world, we all need to keep expressing ourselves through work and humanity; savoring every day. I am privileged to meet these folks, due to your words and Sarah’s insightful photos. A very
    moving post – most appreciated.
    (I absolutely love the gent’s hands in the top photograph!)

  7. January 4, 2018

    Another fascinating post. I always knew the East End held treasures but until I found your blog I had no idea of just how much was there. Silversmithing is something I knew nothing about, in fact, nothing I ever gave a thought to, accepting the goods I saw as ‘just being’. You have given me a new insight into this tough work. I did wonder though, about the danger levels and would love to have learnt more about what type of accidents are liable to happen, and if inhaling arsenic (looked quite a large vat of the stuff) is dangerous.

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the tour of Margolis with craftsmen/women “cheerfully presiding over two enormous boiling vats of steaming hydrochloric acid and livid green arsenic bubbling away.”

    Good to hear that the company was able to adapt with the times and now find their niche servicing hotels and upmarket restaurants.

    From my observation the reality is that young folks today are not as interested as we were in having silver patterns – nor china or class ware either as wedding gifts that would be treasured for life.

    Great story…

  9. January 4, 2018

    Thanks for revealing this East End gem. The portraits are beautiful and the one of Kudret Yirtici is a classic.

  10. Catherine permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Thanks for a fascinating post. As others who have posted, I never really considered what goes into the making of metal objects. It’s a shame working with one’s hands it so undervalued–it can be very satisfying work.

  11. Lisa permalink
    January 4, 2018

    It’s wonderful to see this thriving, small business in the midst of London. The items look elegant, and the workers should be proud of their skills. I am curious as to what kind of wages they make, and whether they are considered “living wages”…..

  12. Antony Macer permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Somethings you want to keep. Some things you want to keep forever. This article, its comments and especially its photographs, comes in the second category.

  13. Sophie permalink
    January 4, 2018

    Hi to the gentle Autor,

    this article really fasinated me. So much emotion and passion about this work.
    Such things makes me happy, to see people proud and happy with their Jobs.
    I follow your blog since some days – I have to say, its one of the best blogs I read in a long time.
    Thank you so much,

    lovely greetings and all the best,

  14. Hilary permalink
    January 6, 2018

    A fascinating read!

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