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Preserver of Fine Metalworking Techniques | Su Chi-sung

  • Date:2023-06-06
Preserver of Fine Metalworking Techniques | Su Chi-sung

Chinese Name: 蘇啟松

Born: 1958

Did You Know?

Fine metalworking is the art of creating delicate decorations using precious metals, such as traditional jewelry, accessories, and religious headwear. Over time, the decorations in temples and on religious figures can become damaged, making the specialized skills of fine metalworking essential for restoring antiques. At the same time, this craft also has a creative aspect that is relevant to contemporary art. In Taiwan, fine metalworking is often used in religious and everyday items, and it is a major traditional craft in Tainan, where the “Silver Street (打銀街)” was once a prosperous hub for this craft.

Craftsman Su Chi-sung has been interested in handicrafts since he was young. After finishing junior high school, he became an apprentice in a silver shop. The shop was filled with precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper, and the master would silently test his apprentices’ character. For example, he would scatter small gold chains or silver pieces in inconspicuous corners to see if the apprentice was greedy. Su Chi-sung has said that to become an apprentice in a silver shop, one must be honest, not petty, and willing to work hard. Only then will the master be willing to teach the real skills.

After passing the character test, Su Chi-sung began with the most basic silver cleaning work, learning how to remove oxidation stains from gold and silver jewelry. During the long process of observing the jewelry, he gradually became familiar with the decorative patterns and shapes. After a period of cleaning practice, he began to use lower-priced silver for basic exercises such as hammering, melting, and wire drawing.

At that time, the silver shop not only accepted orders for general gold and silver jewelry but also for religious headgear and accessories from temples. During his apprenticeship, Su also learned the techniques of making religious headgear. The three years and four months of learning allowed him to memorize the ductility of precious metals and the feel of tools, laying the foundation for his future career in making religious silver headgear.

With the support of his father, Su Chi-sung left the silver shop and started his own business, taking orders for silver headgear at home. After nearly 40 years of making and repairing religious headgear, Su is proficient in metalworking techniques, fully mastering the relevant knowledge, materials, tools, skills, and processes of fine metalworking. His work is precise, delicate, and skilled, with a unique style. He has participated in various craft competitions and won awards such as the Taiwan Craft Design Competition in 2002, the Traditional Craft Silverware Category Selection in the Fucheng Fine Arts Exhibition in 2004, and the Traditional Craft Award in the same event the following year.

In 1998, Su Chi-sung and his brother and fellow craftsman, Su Chien-an (蘇建安), founded a studio. The silver headgear they made together was even exhibited at the Louvre in France. In recent years, Su Chi-sung has felt that goldsmithing techniques are gradually falling into decline and has thus devoted himself to teaching and passing on the craft. He has been teaching in schools and community classes for more than ten years, not only demonstrating his superb goldsmithing skills but also making great efforts to preserve and promote traditional crafts.

Early silver jewelry was first seen on hairpins worn by ancient concubines. The sharp shape could be used for self-defense, and because of the pure silver material, it could also be used to test for poison, making it popular among royal and noble families. At first, hairpins were only popular among the upper class to show off their wealth and status. The materials used were mostly precious gold, ivory, jade, and silver, which were unaffordable for ordinary people. After the collapse of a dynasty, the royal silver craftsmen would be scattered among the people, and the craft gradually shifted to serving the culture of worship, creating religious headgear and accessories, giving birth to the craft of silver headgear for god statues.

The structure of religious headgear is complex and diverse, and some are decorated with red velvet balls as embellishments. Handmade silver headgear is mostly three-dimensional and tightly organized. Upon closer inspection, the pattern elements that echo each other, the specially placed moving parts, and the ingenuity of the craftsmen are evident, making each piece unique and admirable.

In the early 20th century, immigrants from China brought this craft to Taiwan, where it unexpectedly flourished and has been passed down to this day.

(Photo courtesy of Su Chi-sung)