Forget Sheffield steel, this year's Master Cutler James Tear only has eyes for silver

“You’ll have to ask someone else.”

Thursday, 19th May 2022, 7:54 am
Updated Thursday, 19th May 2022, 7:55 am

This year’s Master Cutler has an unexpected response when asked - as he frequently is - ‘how’s the steel industry’?

For James Tear’s shiny metal of choice is not stainless but silver.

His business was established in 1760 to recycle items made from a sandwich of silver and copper, invented in the city by Thomas Boulsover in around 1742 and called Sheffield Plate.

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Annealing furnace at Thessco.

The Sheffield Smelting Co became Thessco which today employs 90 at a large works at Royds Mill on Windsor Street, Attercliffe.

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Mr Tear said: “That’s how we got into silver. All that’s happened in the last 260 years is what we do with it.”

As the 382nd Master Cutler he heads up the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, formed in 1624 to ensure quality among makers of items with a cutting edge - which evolved into a world-beating steel industry.

Crucible at Thessco.

In his year in office he attends hundreds of events all over the country and often encounters the same question.

“People ask how’s the steel industry? There’s an automatic association with Sheffield. I tell them ‘you’ll have to ask someone else’. I’m very grateful for silver, it provides a living to 90 people in Sheffield.”

The old rules on making edges would have prevented Thessco joining the company, he says, except for an ‘association’. It supplied silver to the cutlery trade, including a historic firm today run by his sister Jacqueline: British Silverware.

Adrian Rothwell pouring molten silver alloy from a crucible at Thessco.

Today the Cutlers’ has modernised and welcomes all manufacturers, including digital ones.

Thessco has changed too.

Following the advent of electricity, by a quirk of fate silver turned out to be the best conducting metal on the planet and the company duly diversified. Now it makes alloys of silver for soldering, brazing and electrical applications, from 3ft fuses in power stations to contacts in car doors.

Post World War Two there was a surge in different ’recipes’ to find the best.

Extrusion operative Philip Collington with silver nickel wire at Thessco.

Mr Tear likens it to a witch creating a magical brew.

“It was ‘wing of bat and eye of newt’ experimentation. Today, a couple of standards are unique to us.”

It’s also unique in the country - and one of the largest in the world - at what it does.

From raw materials it uses ‘magical’ processes to create products including melting, (continuous) casting, extruding, drawing, annealing and X-rays.

And recycling is still a forte. Silver granules come direct from mines in Sweden and Finland but copper, used in some alloys, is reclaimed cabling sourced in the UK.

Master Cutler James Tear with silver granules at Thessco 'precious metal engineers' in Attercliffe, Sheffield.

With its main manufacturing and sales facility in the traditional engineering heart of Sheffield, and a further sales and distribution centre in Paris, Thessco exports to more than 50 countries.

Mr Tear’s father Paul was Master Cutler in 1997/8 and the problems he spoke of then still afflict manufacturing today - but in many ways are worse.

Mr Tears says government must act to ease the crisis, which has seen energy bills quadruple, to save the domestic manufacturing industry.

‘Minister for manufacturing’ Lee Rowley MP was attending the Cutlers’ Feast on Thursday when he was hearing it first hand.

Mr Tear added: “I’m proud to say the Cutler’s Company has increased its relevance, it represents the full cross section of manufacturing, engagement is strong and it is more inclusive.”

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Adrian Rothwell with a bale of copper wire recycled from cabling in the meltshop at Thessco.
1,500 tonne extrusion press at Thessco where bar is rammed through a die to produce wire.