Friday, February 8, 2002
A life in silver Carlisle's world-class silversmith designs unique works of art
Take a look at the following list of people and try to guess what they have in common: winners of the Indianapolis 500 and the Ryder Cup; Raisa Gorbachev; visitors to Colonial Williamsburg; Harvard benefactors who donate more than $1 million; high-end silver collectors in Europe and America; and the Pope. The answer can be found in a crowded workshop in Woburn: each of the above owns a precious work crafted by artisan Michael Brophy. Along with being a West Street resident, a highly respected soccer coach, and husband of Town Moderator Sarah Brophy, Michael is, according to the trade publication Silver Magazine, one of the country's preeminent silversmiths.
Raised in England, Brophy first discovered silversmithing as a college student when a friend unceremoniously plunked on his desk a coffeepot that the friend had made. "I just couldn't imagine the process by which a piece of silver turned into a bright, shiny, beautiful piece like that," he recalls, still incredulous at the memory more than 20 years later. He started asking questions and wanted to know more. At Medway College of Design in England, he set about learning the craft for himself.
Although Brophy's work is continuously evolving in its scope and dimension, fame and
In 1985, Brophy decided to take his talents to America. Having been born in the U.S., he had dual citizenship and his grandparents are here, so the move was a fairly easy way to pursue new challenges. He sent his resumé to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; they responded by hiring him immediately upon seeing his work. It was there that he met his wife Sarah who was studying at William & Mary College and interning at Colonial Williamsburg. "I wasn't a costumed interpreter working within the historical park," he explains. "I worked in one of Williamsburg's modern silver workshops, where we produced everything from reproductions of Colonial pieces to PGA trophies." Among the most interesting projects that Brophy picked up during that time was the creation and manufacturing of official State Department gifts. Under these auspices, he produced the priceless items that President Ronald Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and Vice President George Bush gave as gifts to visiting heads of state and other dignitaries one of whom was the Pope during a visit to the U.S. in the mid-1980s.
A few years later, Michael and Sarah decided to move to New England, in part because of the region's longstanding reverence for history. "What little silversmithing is still going on these days is happening here, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island," he says, and points out that Boston was the home of the nation's most famous silversmith, Paul Revere. Brophy had the chance to play his own part in New England history when Harvard University tapped him for a unique project. "They had a piece in their collection called a 'great salt' that probably came over on the Mayflower," he explains. "They decided to have reproductions made to give to a special set of donors: those who contribute $1 million or more." In addition to the great salts, Michael's work for Harvard has included the production of a cup awarded annually by the Graduate School of Design.
An array of applications
Today, Brophy's talents extend into a dizzying array of applications. He creates pieces for designer collections including Mikimoto, Steuben Glass Co. (though not a glassblower, he constructs the metal components often used in Steuben pieces to support the glass), the Calvin Klein Home Collection, DeBeers, Reed & Barton, and Tiffany & Co. He is also well-known within the field for his restoration abilities. Along with being lucrative, restoration carries ideological significance for him. "It's sort of a philosophical thing for me," he muses. "I like to think that when I'm restoring a fine old piece, I'm preventing people from acquiring more stuff. It's my way of reducing the amount of junk in the world." Though projects often begin in his home workshop with drawings, conceptual design and prototypes, he uses industrial space in Woburn for the majority of his technical work and storage.
Going in another direction
Although for years he avoided the entire arena of jewelry design, he has recently begun pursuing another direction. With a partner, he started Mikara, a line of fine jewelry whose design is based on the geometric styles and intricate craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts period. He is also interested in resuming his professional focus in the area of high-end objets d'art, expensive pieces that combine a variety of materials such as metalwork, enamel, pearls and precious gems.
Brophy credits his success as a silversmith to a number of factors. Along with "tremendous luck" and technical expertise, he considers strong hand-eye coordination to be a key skill in his field. This might strike a familiar chord with the many townspeople who know him better for his work on the soccer field than in the design studio. As a teenager in England, he reached the rank of semi-professional soccer player before a knee injury ended that career. Now he devotes time to coaching in Carlisle and its environs. His sons Taylor, 11, and Parker, 8, are both avid soccer players. Brophy's other contributions to the town include serving as a recreation commissioner and a Carlisle firefighter.
He hopes to set up an exhibit of his work in the near future, optimally one that could be held here in Carlisle. "I'd like to be able to show people the tools that are used, introduce them to the whole process," he says. "Silversmithing is part of this area's history, and most aspects of the craft haven't changed much." Perhaps more than his talent or success, the thing to envy most about Michael Brophy is the almost spiritual reverence he retains for his life's work even after decades in the field. "I still think the whole process is amazing," he admits. "The way that two kilos of silver can be transformed into a 14-inch-tall cupI find it absolutely remarkable."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito