You’d probably eat your burger with your hands, and maybe the fries and pickle, too. But fingers just won’t do when it comes to cole slaw, and the kind of fork you use depends on where you’re eating your lunch. In a diner, it might be part of a group of mismatched flatware made of steel or even plastic. But if you’re using real true silver, someone designed and maybe even handcrafted it. If you’re lucky enough for that to be the case, then silversmith John Cogswell, age 58, makes the flatware that you might use to eat in a very grand style, indeed.
“I grew up in the Finger Lakes area of New York, in the center of the state: the land of cow and corn. A very rural area. My father worked for Mac Trucks. I never knew what my father did, when I was growing up, because my father was one of those people who left before dawn, and came back in the evening, but he never talked about his work. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that my father was a metalsmith much the same as I am, but he worked with ferrous metal. He used the same stakes and hammers, but did it all very quietly and just assumed, ‘This is my job, and that’s all there is to it.’
“I didn’t find this out till about 10 years ago, when we went up to visit my parents. Close to where they live is a small, regional airport, and when we got there, my mother said, ‘Has your father shown you his latest project?”’ And my father said, “Come on and I’ll show you,” and we went out to the airport, and the tarmac was covered with small aircraft. There was a tornado that had gone through the year before, and had tossed all these planes all over the place, and my father rebuilt them all. And he’d done the bodywork so beautifully that you couldn’t tell they’d been repaired. And then when he took me into his workshop, to see the last of the planes he was finishing up, and I saw all of his hammers and stakes, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he does the same thing that I do, only he does it in iron, and I do mine in silver.’
“When I was 18, I went out of high school directly into undergraduate school in Cortland, where I grew up, not having a clue what I wanted to do. I’d known, all of my life, that I was attracted to things artistic, but I grew up in a world that said, if you can get a job working in a factory, then you’re set for life. But I had other ideas.
“After taking a class in jewelry making my second semester, I set up a small studio in my attic and tried to teach myself as much as possible. The only book I could find was, by today’s standards, a laughable little Sunset Press publication called Step-By-Step Jewelry by Thomas Gentilli, who is now an internationally famous jeweler. But that book, even though very simple, was my bible. Every night, when I would get home from my day job, I would sit there and pore through and study those pictures before I went to sleep, trying to figure out how everything was done.
“I often take pieces home, and put them on my nightstand and play with them in the dark...you know, the click of a box or a latch or clasp that works just perfectly...I can’t describe it to you! And, in the middle of the night, my ever-patient wife would kind of chuckle and say, ‘Are you playing with that thing again?’ Still, to this day, I’ve never lost that thrill.
“I hate polishing, though. Novice metalsmiths, be they jewelers or silversmiths, can’t wait to get on the polishing machine: they want to see the glint of metal. And it’s a real charmer at the beginning, but then after a while you learn it's filthy, dirty, rotten work. But it has to be done, very carefully and very accurately, otherwise you undo all of the work that you’ve put into it at that point. So, I’m an expert polisher but I hate it.
“By the time I’m partway through a piece, my mind is always on the next project. And I love that. My wife says I just sort of bounce off walls and wander through life, and I probably do. But it’s a wonderful journey, and I like not knowing what tomorrow will bring, because every discovery is fresh and new.”