Creating wire from precious metal is not unlike making fresh pasta: Using a hand-cranked machine called a draw bench, the maker repeatedly forces the metal through the holes in a steel plate until the desired thinness is achieved, a technique called wire drawing.
In the past, such fine wire was used to produce gold cloth for kings and to embroider gowns for queens. More recently it has been used for highly detailed jewelry that appears to have been twisted, woven, braided and even stitched from metal. Such pieces will be among the more than 200 items displayed in “Treasures of Gold and Silver Wire,” scheduled to open Sept. 29 at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and run through Nov. 12.
The exhibition has been planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers, which continues to use the medieval spelling of wire.
The company, as members refer to it, is one of the City of London’s more than 100 livery companies, some of which date to the 12th century. “People think ‘livery’ and they think uniforms. The better word would be guild,” said Karen Watts, the exhibition’s curator and a curator emeritus at the Royal Armouries. “They’re trade guilds. They were set up in order to protect and control a trade, take apprentices and guide them to becoming masters.
“As time has progressed, the trades themselves have been lost, and the main focus has become charitable works. Since the Middle Ages, they’d protect the widows and orphans of their trade, doing good works and endowing schools.”
As technology, and budgets, have overtaken the traditional uses of drawn wire — for example, a hearse’s decorative cloth embroidered in gold wire, commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers in 1515, might seem ostentatious now — other uses have been discovered and the wire drawers’ company has broadened its scope.
“Gold wire is used in everything, including microchips,” Dr. Watts said, so the company now offers a prize for innovation in gold wire work to computer scientists at Cambridge University.
But it is contemporary jewelers and silversmiths who have proven to be the richest source of new candidates for the company, which now has 313 members.
“Contemporary jewelers and silversmiths have always used wire in their work,” said Jean Scott-Moncrieff, a jeweler in the English county of Sussex who works with wire herself and who selected the creations of modern goldsmiths, silversmiths and embroiderers for the exhibition. “But more recently there has been an absolute influx of contemporary jewelers who use wire in a very innovative way. There’s a lot of volume to it because it’s very light and very thin, so it’s not expensive.”
Recently Emma Madden and Luke Shimell demonstrated how to draw down wire in the East London workshop of their jewelry company, Shimell and Madden. “You have to anneal the metal first,” Ms. Madden said, using a small blowtorch to heat a pencil-like piece of 18-karat gold.
“You heat it to a cherry red, then cool it in water, or ‘pickle,’ which cleans off the oxidization,” she said, referring to an acid wash. “The idea is to heat the molecules in the metal to become more free and jiggly. And then the metal is more bendy.”
After an end of a rod is filed to a point, the point is inserted into the smallest hole of the bench’s steel plate and then pinched between tongs that are attached to a strap. The strap is pulled by turning a handle, much like a winch, and the entire rod is drawn through the hole.
It is a slow, time-consuming process. “When you draw metal down, even though it’s getting thinner, it gets harder,” Mr. Shimell said, so the metal has to be annealed again every few passes. Depending on the type of metal, the amount of wire needed and the required thickness, it can take a few hours to as long as several days to draw down enough wire for a piece of jewelry.
A Shimell and Madden ring, in which wires of five different gold hues were twisted into a circle with no discernible join, is to be shown in the exhibition. “You could create this by using CAD, computer-assisted design, and casting it,” Ms. Shimell said. “But you would lose the crispness that working in wire achieves. This ring is essentially one of a kind. We couldn’t recreate it exactly.”
The Scottish jeweler Andrew Lamb works in gold, silver and platinum wire, which he draws down himself using a draw bench that he inherited on the death of a tutor who had taught him the technique at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Mr. Lamb usually creates wire by combining two metals — yellow gold and platinum, or red gold and oxidized silver, for example. “I’ve always been drawn to optical illusions,” he said. “I love Bridget Riley, M.C. Escher and anything to do with puzzles that come alive or things that appear two-dimensional. And jewelry should come alive when worn.”
For example, a brooch from Mr. Lamb’s Vortex series, made in 2018, has thousands of tiny dots of titanium and of silver fixed in a swirling pattern. “Using titanium means I can use things like laser welding. This one has about 40 meters (131 feet) of wire in it,” he said. The Vortex brooch will not be an exhibit, but he said a pendant that he made as a student will be part of the display.
“Wire drawing,” said Dr. Watts, the exhibition curator, “was done by the Phoenicians and the ancient Egyptians, and examples of draw plates have been found in Sweden dating back to the 7th century.
“The Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers were first acknowledged as a company in the 15th century,” she continued, “since Henry VIII took wire drawers with him to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the historic meeting between himself and the French king in 1520.”
The royal meeting was orchestrated to improve relations between the two countries but also “to flaunt the wealth of each country,” said Mark Dickens, a former clerk who worked as the general manager of the company, who is now promoting the exhibition. “The use of gold wire on clothing, regalia and military uniform had a very powerful effect, so the wire drawers were important.”
While the exhibition is to include items like the Bacton Altar Cloth, which the curators of the Historic Royal Palaces said is the only known surviving remnant of a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I, many of the displays will be modern jewelry, emphasizing that gold and silver wire drawing isn’t a lost art; it’s a modernized one.