The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 15, 2002


Master silversmith shares his craft

Three cases with silver works from the collection of Michael Brophy and photos of other of his pieces are currently on display at the Gleason Public Library through the end of the year. The show spans the 23-year working career of the Carlisle silversmith who lives on West Street and has a studio in Woburn. Brophy will discuss his working process and the silver craft at a reception at the library on Saturday, November 16, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

"I have become well-known for producing the designs of other people," he admits. Clients have included Calvin Klein, Tiffany, Harvard University, and both the U.S. and British governments. The exhibition, entitled "Silver, Objects of Art, Virtue and Recognition," marks the seventh in the library's Visual Arts Program. There are over fifty pieces on display. Nonetheless, Brophy reveals the most pride in those pieces that he designed himself. Many date back to college or are pieces he created for other people as personal gifts.

Restoration and fabrication

Brophy works a flexible schedule of about forty hours a week. He does silver restoration work almost every day. Clients include high-end collectors and dealers, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "I'm always needing to repair something for somebody," says Brophy. "I do that first." Each job typically takes 15 minutes to an hour, and then he ships it to the client. New projects come in daily.

The interest in silver restoration rather than silver creation comes down to cost. "A couple of hundred years ago, the cost of material was fifty times that of labor," he says. "It's the other way around now. Material is cheap, and labor is expensive." He estimates that materials only represent about one sixth of the cost of today's pieces. As a result, silver is "cheap" and there's a lot wasted in production.

With the high amount of restoration work available to him, Brophy has a backlog of about four months of commissioned work in front of him, including prototype development for Steuben glass. You won't find Brophy doing it all himself, however. These days he primarily coordinates the work of others. A good example is the major production job he's doing of ten Indianapolis 500 trophies for Roger Penske, a member of one of the elite racing families. Apparently, owners of winning Indy 500 cars just recently began receiving trophies along with the winning drivers. Owner Penske wants to fill his trophy case with trophies for his ten unrecognized victories.

Although as a silversmith, Brophy has done all the stages in making an object of silver, he now oversees the process working with multiple people to maximize efficiency. "My involvement with a trophy like that is to undesign it, and break it down from an engineering point of view of who is going to make what parts for me," he explains. "Then I bring them all together in my studio to do the assembly."

Steps on this project include casting (rubber mold replica of figurines), stamping (text), spinning (trophy body), making of the wooden base, machine engraving, and hand-engraving. On the Indy trophies, Brophy works with six people before bringing all the pieces together into one trophy. It takes him about a week to complete his part of the job, including assembly and polishing. "The busier I got, the more I had to rely on other people," he says.

Transitioning to design work

Today Brophy works for a wide range of existing clients, restoring or reproducing the works of others. He does not consider himself an artist. He does want to be known as a silver designer. "I occasionally will find time to make something like a baby cup," says Brophy. "Eventually what I will do is to design purely outright my own thing. They'll be very limited-production or one-of-kind pieces."

Brophy believes his strength as a designer is in taking functional pieces and adding intricacy to transform it into a work of art. He points to the gifts with "whimsical" notes that he has designed as examples. At the Gleason Public Library, you can see the bell with a decorative owl, the baby set with intricate detail, and a paperweight with built-in jewelry.

In the meantime, Brophy faces a reality where the restoration jobs arrive daily and four-month backlog of commissions keeps growing.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito