At the end of 1972 my grandmother, as a Christmas present but also as a recognition that I seemed to finally be making something of my life, paid for me to buy a collection of tools – the minimum needed to set up a workshop. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I made the purchases, from Cape Watchmakers and Jewellers supplies, then in Burg St. At that time a craftsman’s tools were regarded as inalienable – you couldn’t force him to sell them to cover debts, as that would deprive him of his means of making a living. The tools were somehow an extension of selfhood, and I still have most of them to this day. Those that I haven’t kept I can, mostly, remember.
They included a torch for melting and soldering, rolling mills for rolling the metal into sheet or wire, hammers and a small anvil, a bench vice, drawplates for drawing out wire in various profiles and thicknesses, an assortment of hand tools, a flexible shaft motor and a polishing motor. With the exception of the motors and the torch, I still regularly use them all. I have of course added to this necessary core collection over the years, so that by now I have perhaps a thousand or more tools, but the ones from my grandmother, along with some pliers and a single hammer head from my apprenticeship, are a constant that reaches right to the root of my career in the Trade.
I walked through the doorway into a long narrow room with high west-facing windows above a row of work-benches. There were three or four men sitting at the benches working with mysterious things. The place was full of tools – hand tools lying on benches or hanging in rows on racks, rolling mills, a small anvil, enigmatically-shaped swage blocks and dapping dies. There were flames, from the gas-and-oxygen soldering torches. A hammer rang and rang. There were the smells of hot oil, the particular scent given off by the flux when one melts precious metal, the odour of Tripoli compound and rouge. The radio was playing – Radio Good Hope, some sentimental tune from the past, perhaps Nat King Cole’s ‘Walking my Baby back Home’. I took off my badly-cut 1969 suit jacket, and hung it on a hook with other jackets. I felt completely at home.
Apprenticeship Part II
An important part of my induction into the Trade was my role as a messenger. Jewellery is not usually accomplished in a single workshop – there is a network of tradesmen and merchants involved: the diamond and precious stone dealer, the gold and silver merchants, the sellers of findings and semi-precious stones, the pearl merchants, the setters, the engravers, the suppliers of tools and expendables, the man who has the right draw-plate or triplet, the man who can advise on the correct soldering procedure, the workshops that do the best (and worst) casting, the expert polisher who has the special lap for polishing bevels, the lapidary, the various retail and wholesale stores. All were located in the centre of Cape Town within walking distance of each other in buildings ranging from five to ten storeys high. I wove a complex three-dimensional trail between them all, on balconied or open streets, in lifts with or without operators, up and down piss-smelling stairwells, carrying gold rings, diamonds, findings, tools and equipment, messages, a bottle of some chemical, the one hammer that will do the job.
Apprenticeship Part III
The Trade was an all-male affair in 1971. Where other businesses employed women as cleaners and “tea girls”, the workshops were provided with menial workers in the form of apprentices as well polishers, the lowest workers on a ladder that stretched from polisher’s apprentice all the way to Meister. We did our own cleaning and made our own instant coffee. This has all changed during my lifetime, and now women are as common in workshops as men, in all roles.
In my second year as an apprentice we were joined by a young woman who was keen to learn the arcana of the trade. She was shy and somewhat conservative, not especially gifted with hand skills. She wanted to make jewellery and was bravely struggling with the prerequisite – using tools.
But she couldn’t endure the relentlessly male and sexist atmosphere of the workshop. The men would spend tea breaks looking out of the windows at the people in the street below, especially the women. What could she have made of it when a journeyman compared some hot-pants-clad girl’s pubic mound to a Volkswagen bonnet, or the on-going banter about the seamstresses who worked on the sixth floor across the street, and whom we could watch going about their work? The men decided that she was prudish, and teased her for it. I was in possession of the barest bones of feminism, then called “Women’s Liberation” from my year at UCT, and I cringed at the way she was treated, but to my shame I did not defend her. After a few months she didn’t return.
Apprenticeship Part IV
George was our polisher. He was one of those ‘coloureds’ with pale skin, brownish hair and green eyes, and was predictably called Whitey. (Apartheid was very strange.) He wore a blue cotton overcoat like a lab coat. His hands were never entirely free of the reddish traces of rouge. The nails of his thumbs and index fingers were highly polished, and gleamed, but were rimed underneath. If you encounter someone with hands like that, you don’t have to be Sherlock to work out that they are a polisher.
George was an in-your-face sort of man, full of boasts of sexual exploits or excesses of substance consumption, and although I got on with him, his world was very far from mine, and I found it hard going. He liked the joke that was also a put-down, the subversive one-liner. He was the living embodiment of the subaltern getting his own back in various little ways, a tradition with its roots in slavery.
Like all workers he was always short of money, and when times became especially pressing he would nick a piece of silver from the scrap box, which no-one bothered to weigh or check, make up a wedding band, stamp it ‘18ct’ and plate it with gold. Then he’d pop down to the pawn shop with it.
One summer weekend towards the end of my time with Huppertz, George went to Macassar Beach, a wind-swept stretch of coast on False Bay with dangerous rip-tides which was reserved for “non-whites”, where he and friends spent the day drinking before setting out in a boat. The boat capsized. Like most working-class people then, he couldn’t swim, and was drowned. Many years later, browsing in a junk shop, I came across a golden ring that was stamped 18ct about six times. Some of the plating had worn off and the silver was showing through. I felt sure that it was one of his.
Apprenticeship Part V
The man who taught me the most was a journeyman called Andrew. He must have been in his late twenties or early thirties, but seemed the most mature of the workers. He was married, and was the only worker with a car, a Volkswagen Beetle. A patient teacher, he would explain and show me how things were done, and he called me to watch if he did some technique that was new to me.
Seeing me cutting silver solder into pieces that were too big, he’d say “Paillons, not pile-ons,” a concise instruction in pronunciation, technical terminology and technique.
We communicated in a mixture of English and Cape Afrikaans, but apart from some witticisms it is his hands that I remember, because I have incorporated them into my own. It was his gesture that I imitated when I wielded a hammer or bent a piece of metal with pliers. He was a fine craftsman, capable of making all the jewellery that was then seen in the top stores, or of raising up in silver an accurate posy of orchids, life size, using hammers, punches and a lead block.
Some time in the nineties I encountered the polisher who had replaced George, and whose name I can’t remember, in Town. He had stayed in touch with the workers from Huppertz’s firm, and I asked him about Andrew.
‘He’s not in the trade any more,’ I was told, ‘he’s installing kitchen cupboards. The money is much better.”
Apprenticeship Part VI