Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Refiner

For as long as I can remember, I've had a love affair with jewelry. I love all the sparkly gemstones set in silver, gold or platinum. For about five or six years, I've been experimenting with making jewelry from various mediums, but I have always wanted to make jewelry from silver or gold, and today I got my chance. I had no idea that by taking the class that God was going to teach me a spiritual lesson.

I started my lesson with gathering scrap silver--a knife handle from a broken knife, a couple of old rings and some broken chains. My teacher explained that we were going to take these scraps and make the foundation for the piece of jewelry that I will eventually create.

When I gave her the items to melt, she carefully inspected each and explained their intrinsic value. Even though some pieces were broken, they were salvageable. We put those pieces aside. Next she took the knife handle and inspected it. It had once been beautiful, but now was broken and useless.

'Uh oh' she said after examining the piece, 'we can't use this one yet.'
'Why?' I asked. I thought maybe it wasn't pure silver or that we'd have to add something like copper to it.
'Look inside here.' She showed me the part where the blade had broken off from the handle.
'It's filled with resin. We can't melt it because it will totally ruin the ingot (an ingot is silver that has been melted and poured into a mold.)

I watched as she took the piece, laid it on an anvil, and began pounding it with a large hammer.
'The only way to get the resin out is to beat it.'
As she began pounding, piles of dust began falling everywhere. Next she took metal snips and began goughing the silver to expose the resin and continue beating it. I have to admit, I was taken aback a little bit. I was thinking what a shame it was that this once beautiful handle was being totally decimated.

After a few moments, the handle was almost unrecognizable as its former self. What had once been a heavy, full object was now goughed, roughed, beaten and hollow. I was amazed. What was once on the inside of this handle--what had previously given it its form and shape was now nothing more than dust. It was, in effect, worthless.

We placed the pieces for melting in a small crucible. It was now time to melt the silver. This was to me the most interesting part of the whole process. To melt the silver, it must be kept under constant heat. The white tip of the flame (which is the hottest element) must be kept on the piece at all times; if not, the piece will immediately harden. It was mesmerizing to see the silver change from a hard, cold form to a liquid puddle in merely seconds. As the silver is melted, you will occasionally see bits of impurities that can be removed with a graphite rod (hmm). After it is sufficiently melted, the silver is immediately poured into mold.

Before you can go to the next step, you must inspect the ingot (what the molded silver is now called). You will look for impurities or there maybe small, almost invisible cracks on the surface. If you find these, you must melt the silver again. Once everything is pure and no cracks, you then file off irregularities to make sure everything is smooth. You give it a bath in pickle--it's a sulphuric acid that stops the "cooking" process
and keeps the silver from turning black.

Next is a very long, hard process. After the pickle and filing, you then put it in the press. The press is made of two large stainless steel cylinders with a vise on top. You put the silver in the vise and push it through the press. Then you turn the vise, and push the silver through again. Only this time, it's much harder. What's interesting about this process is that it's literally called 'stressing'. It stresses the silver, and makes it flatter each time it goes through the press. Each time you pass it through, you turn the vise just a little bit. Each time it's harder to pass the piece through, so you really have to work it.

Remember earlier that I mentioned the cracks? Well, at this point if there are cracks in the ingot, it will break at this point. If that happens, it has to go back to the crucible and the process is started again.

Now, you'd think that you could just put the silver through the press and eventually you'll get it into the shape you need, right? Nope. After awhile, the silver gets cold and hard. It won't go though the press any more without breaking. So what you do is heat it under a little flame just to get it softened again. Then it goes through the press again and again until it's the shape you need. It is a long and grueling process. It was hard for me after awhile to push that ingot through the press. At first glance it looked like nothing had changed with the silver, but Elizabeth showed me little by little that there was change. My ingot was slowly but surely taking shape.

When finally you're done, you then use various tools to create the brooch or chain or whatever you need. Now, when I was taking that class, I thought at first I was just learning how to make a cabochon (it's basically a piece of stone wrapped with silver); but God was teaching me something. I'd heard about the 'refiner's fire', but seeing it demonstrated on a small scale was just awesome. It was an amazing process. I started thinking about all the "fires" I've been in. All the stressful situations where I literally felt like I was being stretched to the limit. I thought sometimes I would break. But I started thinking about how God takes an old handle like me, and beats out all the impurities in me. He allows me to go into the refiner's fire. He molds me. He puts me through the press. He heats me up again. He cleans the black smudges of sin and files away my rough edges. It hurts and it's hot, but in the end He is making me into something beautiful--and something different than what I started as.