The small coffee urn looked as if it had been torched. It was an ashy black. The marble-sized ivory handle ends, designed to protect the pourer's fingers, were broken. No hallmark was visible.
Throwaway or treasure?
Treasure, according to Stephen Osborne, who with his father-in-law, Jerzy Jablonski, runs J.J. Silversmith & Brass Inc. The urn had been neglected for years, was tarnished and had suffered some water damage but did not go through a fire. It only looked as if it had.
"When I look at a piece like this, I already know what is underneath," Osborne said recently. "Most people would probably throw it out or consider it to have no value at all."
Jablonski estimated it was made in the second half of the 19th century, and he knew it was pewter.
Turns out the urn was made on May 26, 1869. Osborne found the hallmark on the spigot after he cleaned it. After Osborne finishes the urn, the top that has a lion on it and the burner that goes beneath, he plans to sell it. Jablonski will fashion the handles out of bone since ivory no longer is available.
"I'll probably be asking $450 to $475 just because of the age." Osborne said. "I think my wife paid $10 to $15 for it" at an antique shop. He says the sales price is not much more than what the shop would charge someone bringing in the urn to restore: $350 to $425.
Many of the pieces that come in to J.J. Silversmith look like the coffee urn. Some are mangled after encounters with garbage disposals. The shop does restoration that includes cleaning, polishing and repairing. Museums, churches, antique dealers and individuals are clients, Osborne said, and customers come from all over the country. Unusual pieces include a sterling crown from a local temple, a solid brass baby crib and elaborate fireplace fenders. Polaroids are taken of the most elaborate pieces that have to be disassembled to work on, "so we will know what they look like and be able to put them back together," Jablonski said.
Not all black pieces need replating. Some only need cleaning.
Sets of sterling silver flatware begin coming into the shop as the holidays approach. Osborne said many sets are black, and the shop will charge $2 to $3 per piece to clean them. A service for 12, with the basic five pieces per person, then would cost between $120 to $180 to clean and take a couple of weeks. Larger pieces cost more.
Jablonski said the best thing people can do to keep their sterling silver flatware shiny is to use it as much as possible. It's not a good idea to put it in the dishwasher. If you do, don't let it go through the dry cycle, he said.
Silversmiths aren't found on every corner. Pinellas County counts 43, according to Laura A. Berkowitz, research manager for the county Economic Development Department. That is in addition to the 175 jewelry stores, many of whom could have crafts people who do repair work on silver or other precious metals. She also said that of the 43, some could be manufacturers.
Jeffrey Herman of Rhode Island founded the Society of American Silversmiths, which has 74 artisan members. Prospective members are judged on their technical skill, he said.
"There aren't very many excellent silver restorers or conservators," Herman said. "There is not any formal apprenticeship in this country. What some companies do is try to find students with metal arts degrees and then train them to do restoration work as opposed to starting from the ground up."
Jablonski and Osborne are not members of the society.
Jablonski, 58, bought the shop in 1990 after working there for a while. He learned silversmithing in Poland and came to this country 20 years ago. Son-in-law Osborne has been working with him for four years. Also on the premises is J.J. Furniture, run by Tom Jablonski, 33, who restores antiques and also builds furniture.
The shop, at 1737 49th St. S, has been home to silversmiths since 1949, Jablonski said. It is a room full of vats of electrocleaning fluids, plating washes and neutralizers.
One big tub has a soft wire brush attached and a spigot. After pieces come out of the electrocleaning, where water with cleanser and a current running through it take off dirt, they are scrubbed with the wire brush as water runs over them.
Osborne soaked the coffee urn in the cleanser all day and then used the wire brush on it.
"When I pulled it out (of the cleanser), it was even blacker, but when I used the wire brush, the black came off like wet soot," he said.
Bead blasting comes next to even out the finish. A material that looks like baby powder is used. It is the same process as sand blasting, Osborne said, but using sand would leave the urn pitted.
Once the pewter is polished, the urn goes into a copper wash and then a silver wash. Silver plate is its final finish.
The process takes a couple of weeks.