Coles Lawton remembers her first encounter with Steece Hermanson, a master hand engraver who owns Heirloom Hand Engraving in Sumter. “A friend was collecting silver goblets for her grandchildren, and Steece had engraved them with a monogram,” she says. “When she showed them to me, I was shocked by his level of artistry. The lines, the grooves, the shadows — his work is amazing.”
Fifteen years later, when Coles needed to have a meaningful set of silver julep cups monogrammed, she immediately called Steece. “It was so important to get it right, and I knew that he would,” she explains. “He ended up creating an absolutely beautiful monogram that transformed the julep cups into a family heirloom that we will treasure forever.”
Growing up in the jewelry business — his grandfather was a watchmaker at Sylvan’s and his father, also a watchmaker, owned a jewelry store in West Columbia — Steece was well acquainted with the art of hand engraving and originally considered it as a career. However, since the training was time-consuming and expensive, he turned to jewelry making instead, becoming a Master Bench Jeweler and creating custom pieces for Galloway & Moseley Fine Jewelers in Sumter. His work won awards and delighted his clients, but Steece still had one more stop on his career path.
“I always thought I’d work for someone else, but when I turned 40 something clicked, and I realized that I wanted to work for myself,” he says. “So I went back to what I had originally wanted to do with my life and learned how to hand engrave.”
What Steece did not realize when he made that pivotal decision was the pent-up need that existed for someone specializing in hand engraving. “When I went into engraving full time, I discovered that an increasing number of hand engravers were getting close to retirement age, and there was no one to replace them,” says Steece. He currently works with dozens of retailers in 15 states, fielding calls almost daily from potential clients wishing to work with him directly; however, for insurance and privacy reasons, he prefers to work through retailers.
At a time when nearly anything can be personalized easily, cheaply and quickly, the enduring demand for hand engraving, which is expensive and time consuming, may seem odd. But it’s precisely the difference between the two that has allowed hand engraving to retain its cachet.
Those looking to have a piece machine engraved will be able to choose a font style and size from a list of standard designs; the cuts within the finished piece will be of perfectly uniform depth and width.
Hand engraving, on the other hand, combines the skill of a craftsman and the creativity of an artist to transform something as seemingly simple as a single-letter inscription into a work of art. Within letters engraved in the Old English style, for instance, broad, flat areas are filled with a series of hair-thin parallel lines, each of which must be carefully carved into the metal one at a time. To make the lettering even more challenging, these broad areas often intersect at varying angles, requiring the engraver to be as talented at geometry as he or she is with tools. An engraver can also carve some fonts in the “bright-cut” style, which allows them to shimmer with reflected light; in relief, which removes the background and leaves the pattern raised; or, with certain portions of the design highlighted by stippling around it with miniscule dots. Clients needing more panache can request scrollwork, shading, and ornate swoops to be added to their custom design.
Beyond adorning a tray, cup, or piece of jewelry with a monogram or inscription, a hand engraver also possesses the power to make the simple ornate by filling the entire surface of a piece with a design.
Humans have engraved their possessions since the beginning of time, both to decorate them and to mark ownership. Weapons discovered from the Stone and Bronze ages are often engraved with animals, scenes from mythology, and other decorations. In the 15th century, soldiers had the hilts and blades of edged weapons engraved. Today, owners of custom-made guns often have them embellished with a lavish engraving.
Although Steece does not work on firearms, he has engraved virtually any object made from silver, gold, or platinum, including jewelry, trays, pitchers, cups, goblets, flatware, napkin rings, cuff links, clocks, and watches. He notes that while engraving wedding rings with a sentimental inscription is still quite popular, he is often surprised by the actual words. “Some of the phrases I’ve engraved on rings would make you blush,” he says. “I always wonder if they’ve thought about what their descendants will think when they look inside their mother’s beautiful ring!”
No matter what Steece is engraving, the process with a client begins with a booklet of lettering styles, or fonts, that are typically used in engraving. Once the client has chosen a look, whether sleek or elaborate, masculine or feminine, modern or traditional, Steece will get to work with a pencil, personalizing each letter and creating a one-of-a-kind alphabet or monogram. Along the way, he presents options on the finish since some cuts reflect light brilliantly while others create a darker patina.
Where drawings are rendered on a flat surface, an engraver must think in 3D, as each bit of shading or detail requires a deeper, thicker, or wider cut. What may look simple on paper can be challenging to recreate on metal, particularly if that metal is curved, as is the case with a baby or julep cup or wedding rings, which are especially curved and tiny. A skilled engraver will also lead his or her client toward a script style that not only complements an item’s size and shape, but also its style. Coles feels that Steece is particularly talented in this area. “The patterns he suggests are always so appropriate to the piece,” she says. “The finished work is a marriage of art, craft, style, and execution.”
Steece also suggests that clients date heirloom items, which will allow future generations to understand a bit more about the history of their family treasure. He frequently develops his designs on paper before using various methods to transfer the design to the metal for engraving. Years of experience and practice have enabled him to draw the design directly onto the piece. To do this he applies a thin layer of beeswax and talcum powder to the item on which he lightly pencils the design in preparation for engraving.
One of the most important tools in Steece’s arsenal is his workstation, which includes an engraver’s block with multiple holding devices, a hands-free magnification system that resembles a microscope, and diffused lighting to provide the brightness necessary, without glare, for such detailed work.
Where a painter uses a brush, an engraver uses a variety of precise cutting tools, called gravers, to create his or her art. Sharp as razors, the gravers, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes, cut through the metal at specific angles. For his clients, the resulting piece is more than the sum of its parts. “Steece’s work enhances the sentimentality of a piece,” says Coles. “Every time we use James’ julep cups we are reminded of the special people we love.”