Following is an article first printed in the Autumn 1995 newsletter of the Canadian Viola Society which tells of my experience commissioning alto clef jewelry.
It all started at the 1983 Viola Congress in Houston, Texas when I admired a silver alto clef owned by Julian Fisher who had commissioned the piece of jewelry.
Why not have some alto clef jewelry made for myself? But I had an idea! I knew that better quality G and C strings for the viola were wound with silver although I had no idea what the quality of the silver was. I also had several old strings sitting around "in case I needed them someday". Thus began my silver wire collection. I painstakingly pulled the silver wire off my old strings and wound it into a ball, an activity I continued until 1995. [see picture] As the ball grew, I began to inquire at craft shows to find an interested silversmith.
In the spring of 1995, the selected artisan, Eric Brackenbury of Carp, Ontario near Ottawa, melted a section of the wire and advised me that it was workable silver. He then melted down the entire ball of silver and the design process for a stick pin and earrings began.
The process was not without its hitches. It soon became apparent that my ball of wire contained some metal which was not silver and because it did not melt, it destroyed the crucible. The foreign metal may have come from a few strings which were given to me by friends, or it may have originated from the one (and only) Eudoxa "Olive" string I have ever used. Some of the "Olive" strings have silver winding, but some are wound with tungsten. The older strings that I had were Eudoxa strings but virtually all used since I acquired a new instrument in 1985 were Dominant strings.
In an effort to learn more about the quality of silver used in various strings, I wrote to several string manufacturers but the response was poor. One manufacturer offered to send silver from damaged strings to me if I would, in turn, send some finished jewelry to him. Another forwarded my letter to Heinl's in Toronto and I received a nice letter from F.R. Heinl indicating that a very good grade of silver is used but it may also contain some small quantities of gold. The others didn't answer and I was unable to determine whether all the silver wound strings made by a given company use the same grade of silver.
Most of the wire from my strings was very pure silver - better than sterling. However, to avoid problems, I would recommend that you use only strings of which you know the brand, keep various types of strings separately, and label them as to their origin. That way, they can be tested to ensure that the silver is workable.
I would also caution you that this is not a way to save money. When you commission a piece of silver jewelry, you are paying more for the design and skill of the artisan than for the raw material. If you are interested only in the finished product, then commission it from materials the artisan has. But if you would find it meaningful to recycle the very high grade of silver used in your old strings, this can be an interesting project.
My ball of wire yielded about 2 oz of workable silver - more than 3 times as much as I needed for the project. I have some jewelry which I enjoy. A close friend has had part of the silver made into an alto clef pin. This is especially meaningful because of the source of the silver. The remainder has been given to other good friends. What better way to share a very special aspect of one's musical life?
Ann frederking (firstname.lastname@example.org)