Gold and Silver Smithing; A Judaic Tradition Part II - Europe and America

Fact Paper 17-II

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved


Jewish Smiths from the Near-East

From the Roman into the modern period Jews were involved in transforming precious and other metals into objets d'arte in Europe. They were proficient in all the related industries such as jewelry manufacture, watchmaking, lock-smithing, needle-making, minting of money, sword and armor-making.

Jewish smiths were brought to Europe as slaves after the crushing of the Bar Khochba revolt. They were put to work in the mines and at the forges in Sicily, Sardinia and Spain. Subsequently, as freemen, they followed the Roman legions up through Gaul as far as Cologne. Documentary evidence of Jewish involvement in European metallurgy can be seen as early as the sixth century, when a Jew, Priscus, produced coins at Chalon-sur-Soane for the Frankish King Chilperic I (561-584).1

Near-Eastern Jewish smiths brought their expertise from Islamic North Africa to Spain.

Jewish smiths from Persia, along with the Khazars, penetrated into Silesia (Poland) and Transylvania (Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania).

Jewish smiths fled medieval European oppression to Silesia, where they were welcomed by the Polish princes who sought to obtain their expertise.

The record of Judaic creativity generally disappeared after recurrent expulsions and the consequent destruction of their community's archives. State records, however, provide a mirror of the Judaic involvement in metallurgy because Jewish silver- and goldsmiths were almost universally the minters of money.

The trail of Eastern Jewish mintmasters is visible from the time that a Jewish minter, Sumayr, was the diecutter and mintmaster for Abdalmalik (685-705), the Ummayed caliph at Damascus. Sumayr is considered the founder of Islamic coinage, inasmuch as the earliest Muslim coins were struck during his tenure.2

Jewish minters were also to be found from the earliest times in Cairo, where their predecessors, the silver- and goldsmiths of Ptolemaic Alexandria, had a special section reserved for them in the synagogue. In the eleventh century Jews were still in the forefront of coinage. About 1086, Japheth b. Abraham, in partnership

with two other Jews, was administrator of the Fustat (Cairo) mint The records of the Cairo Geniza mention two Jews operating the caliphate mint in the second half of the 12th century. Again, in the 16th century:

"The most noted Cairo mintmasters" were Isaac Sholal and Abraham Castro. Castro was appointed to the position after the conquest of Egypt by Sultan Selim (c. 1520). He was a whistle-blower! He was dismissed from his position after informing Constantinople that the Egyptian viceroy, Ahmed Pasha, was plotting independence. Abraham was reinstated with honor after Ahmed's defeat in 1524. The position was subsequently "held by the court banker, Raphael Joseph, known as the Chelibi. Under Murad III (1574-95) the director of the Turkish mint was a Jew, Hodja Nessimi (or Nissim). In this same period Moses Beneviste - known to the Turks as Hodja Moussahibi - was involved in the 'reform' which led to a revolt of the janissaries against 'Jews money'"3

Judaic predominance in coinage can be discerned throughout Islam into modern times. For example, the minter for the Imam of Yemen in the mid-eighteenth century was Yahy b. Judah Badihi (1810-1888). Again we find Samuel b. Abraham, the head of the Crimean Karaites, serving the last Tatar khan in the mid-eighteenth century. As mintmaster and treasury minister, Samuel held the official title of Aga. His son, Benjamin succeeded him in both position and title. When the Crimea was conquered by Russia in 1783, Benjamin was permitted to retain his title.3

From Islamic North Africa to Iberia

Jewish smiths from North Africa served under the Muslims in Spain, and continued their trade under the Christians. "Jewish goldsmiths are among the first Jews mentioned in Muslim Spain, and are repeatedly referred to there in the following centuries. In Christian Spain Jewish goldsmiths were to be found in practically every sizable town; they were employed by the royal households and occupied their own row of shops in cities like Toledo and Pamplona. Conspicuous in Aragon are Jewish bookbinders, scientists who devise scientific instruments, and gold- and silversmiths."4

"Bonnom (Shem Tov) made gold coins under the authority of Count Ramón Berengue I of Barcelona. In 1066 the count's son sold the right to mint coinage to a syndicate which included David b, ha-Ivri. Benveniste de Porta (d. 1268) leased the mint of Barcelona from James I of Aragon. Sancho IV of Castile gave a similar concession to Abraham of Barcelona in 1287. A century later, in 1331, Alfonso XI of Castile repeated this with Samuel ibn Waqat (Aben Huscar); Pedro IV of Aragon gave control of the royal mint to a Jewish company about the same time."5

We can judge the extent of Jewish artisanship by other references to Jewish smiths, as for example the fact that in 1341 the silversmith Moses Jacob of Perpignan was ordered to repair clocks in the royal palace in Barcelona. Again, in 1399, we find the silversmith Solomon Barbut, who had been working for King John I of Aragon, making a reliquary for the prior of the Augustinian order in Barcelona.6


So pervasive were the Jews in creative crafts that, in 1412-1413, sharply anti-Jewish decrees were passed in Castile and Aragon which forbade Jews to serve in a number of crafts, including smithing.

The church became so dependant on Judaic talents that two years later, despite the ban, "so considerable was the number of Jewish silversmiths that, in 1415, Pope Benedict XIII, found it necessary to forbid having crosses, chalices and other church utensils made by Jews."7

Nonetheless, a decree passed in 1419 expressly permitted silver-smithing by Jews. The contradictory restraints and exemptions clearly indicate that Jewish silversmiths were irreplaceable!

The facts about the extent of Jewish participation in Iberian metallurgy trickle through from such records as an inventory taken in Portugal just before the expulsion in which 41 Jewish goldsmiths prominently appear.28

That Jewish metallurgical expertise must have been considerable is also attested by the fact that Sephardim expelled from Iberia after 1495 built the munitions factories on the Bosporus that gave the Ottomans the weapons with which they created an empire.

An Italian, Benedetto Ramberti, and a Frenchman, Nicolas de Nicolay, noted with consternation the advanced designs of artillery and other ordnance introduced into Turkey by the Jews. De Nicolay who accompanied the French ambassador to Turkey in 1551, wrote that the "excellent workers in all crafts and manufactures among the recently arrived Spanish and Portuguese refugees, especially Marranos who, to the great detriment and damage of Christianity, have conveyed to the Turks many inventions, arts, and machines of war, namely, how to produce artillery, guns, gunpowder, cannon balls and other weapons."8

In Constantinople the Sephardic smiths took their place in the alai, a pageant of the guilds that took place in 1638 during the reign of Sultan Murad IV. The pageant was described in a travelogue of the times. "... Some crafts were represented entirely by one ethnic group. Thus the 100 tin melters were all Jews and apparently belonged to a Jewish guild. This was also the case regarding the acqua forris makers, (the alchemists or gold and silver refiners).9

Through Russia into the Pale

Persian/Jewish artisans came up into Silesia with the Khazars who had converted to Judaism. They were joined by Jewish artisans from Gaul and Germany, invited into Silesia by the Polish princes of the area who were eager to obtain their expertise.10

In Poland Jews minted coins almost without interruption from the early stages of the Polish kingdom until its partition. The names of Polish rulers appear in Hebrew on these coins, followed by the term Berakha (benediction). Some coins bore names identifying the Jewish mintmasters such as Abraham, son of Isaac Nagid, and Joseph Kalish.11

"Boleslav IV (1146-73) used Jews to mint and distribute his currency. Shortly thereafter, Casinir IV (1146-73) allowed a Hebrew inscription to appear upon state coins. Miesko III (1173-77, 1195-1202) gave a life grant to the Jews to lease the state mint, and Polish currency in the last two decades of the 12th century were stamped solely in Hebrew... Boreslav of Kujawy and Miesko the Younger imitated their father. Boreslav permitted his own name to be stamped in Hebrew while Mieszko the Younger allowed the names of the Jewish mintmasters, such as Ben Jacob and Joseph ha-Kohen to be enscribed. As in the case of Abraham mentioned above. Przemyslav I later continued this practice for some 40 years, as did his son Przemylslav II."

"In later Polish history Jews continued to be mintmasters, although no Hebrew appeared on their coins. In 1360 the Cracow mint was transferred to Lewko, an important Jewish financier. Under Sigimond I, between 1509 and 1518, Abraham Ezofowitz leased the mint in the Lithuanian province of Poland for three years to a Jew in Vilna. He again gave the Vilna concession to the Jews Felix and Borodovka in 1560."12

The Kupa synagogue of Kazimierz was built in the first half of the seventeenth century with a contribution of 200 zlotys by the Jewish goldsmith's guild of the town. The synagogue was plundered and devastated during World War II. Some paintings that had adorned the ceiling and beams of the gallery for women and a few other artifacts have been preserved.13

In 1758 a census was taken in three small villages of the Ukraine: Medzhibozh, Slobod, and Trebukhovsktsy. It shows that craftsmen constituted over half of the population of even the most insignificant Jewish villages. Among them were 4 blacksmiths, 3 goldsmiths, 2 coppersmiths, one tinsmith, and one jeweler.14

The revered "Partzever Rebbe," was a silversmith in the tradition of the ancient sages, who all worked at a trade.15

The Jews remained integral to the crafts and industries of Poland well into the 20th century. In 1664, "Hirsch Jelenowicz was officially called 'goldsmith to His Majesty.'" A census taken in Poznan in 1797 reflects a typical pattern. The Jews, a minority of the overall population, were the major part of the industrial arts. In Poznan alone there were registered 238 Jewish and 6 Christian iron-smiths; 22 Jewish and 19 Christian goldsmiths.15 It appears that many of the Christian goldsmiths were, in fact, not independent masters, but were employed in the Jewish shops and registered along with their employers as "goldsmiths."

In 1856. 1,289 Jewish locksmiths were registered in Congress Poland (exclusive of the metropolis Warsaw), as well as 2,591 glassworkers, suggesting that both disciplines were predominated by Jewish artisans. That such may have been the case is also indicated by the statistics taken in Poland in 1931, in which 4,585 Jews were registered as glassworkers, still representing at that late period over 80 % of the total of glassworkers.16

In Riga, Latvia, a town referred to before WW II as "The Paris of the North," 46 Jewish goldsmiths were registered, and they were credited for the town's lofty reputation for fine craftsmanship.17 Russian statistics are even more startling:

In 1807 there were 253 Jewish copper and tin workers in Minsk, Kiev and Yekaterinoslav. In 1897, ninety years later, national statistics register 15,669 Jewish smiths and 11,801 Jewish craftsmen in other metallurgical occupations. In Moscow four metal factories were established by Jews between 1869 and 1878, and two more between 1878 and 1880. Descendants of exiles and Jewish settlers in Siberia were prominent among the pioneers of gold mining in that forlorn territory. 48,921 Jews were involved in metalwork in 1898, of whom 25,499 were registered as masters. They represented 52.1% of the total Russian workforce in the metal trades. In the year 1910 in the city of Odessa, Jews owned 88 out of the 96 iron and tin factories!18

In 1913 Baron Alfred Guenzberg was the director of Lena Goldfields Inc,, the largest gold-mining enterprise in Russia.18

"In Bohemia-Moravia gold- and silversmithing developed as a flourishing craft among Jews from the 16th century. Emperor Rudolf II appointed Isaac Goldscheider ("gold refiner") elder of Bohemian Jewry in 1560. He was followed in his craft by his son Jacob. The profession became widespread there as attested by the frequent appearance of the name Zoref ["goldsmith."] on Prague tombstones until 1740. In the eighteenth century the trade was combined with the Jewish trade in precious stones and metals centered in Amsterdam and Hamburg...There were eight goldsmiths among the Jews who returned to Prague in 1804, and in1830 there were 55 [Jewish] goldsmiths."18

The Prague Jewish Museum's silver collection comprises over 6000 objects, largely from Bohemia and Moravia. A large proportion of these artifacts were produced by Jewish craftsmen, despite the fact that Jewish participation in the trades and crafts was restricted during various periods.19

The invention of printing is commonly attributed to Gutenberg in 1449 or 1450. "Around the year 1444... a Prague goldsmith by the name of Waldvogel carried out experiments and was said to be teaching the method of 'artificial writing.' This was achieved by means of letters cut in tin and iron."20

In Rumanian 1904 statistics, Jews were 81.3% of engravers, 72.8% of tinsmiths, 75.9% of watch-makers, and 52.8% of the glass industry!21 In that same year a study of the crafts of the "Southwestern Pale of Settlement" showed an astonishing contingency of Jews in the metallurgical trades: 9,138 Jewish smiths were registered , of which the 5,629 blacksmiths made up the majority. Copper, tin-, gold- and silver-smiths made up the balance of the Jewish metallurgical artisans of the region, collectively numbering 3,509. There were also 1,316 Jewish watchmakers, virtually the entire roster of such craftsmen in the region. The fact that 1,265 locksmiths were registered indicates that the hierarchy of the region were their main clientele, as the poor Jewish homes of the Shtetllach had little need of their services. It should also be noted that another pyrotechnically-based trade, glassmaking, was likewise virtually an exclusively Jewish discipline of the region in 1904. 2,231 "glaziers" were listed in the study!22

U. S. emigration figures are equally illuminating. Of 106,236 Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the U.S.A. in 1903-04 alone, for example, there were among them 14,830 iron-gold-silver-smiths and miscellaneous metal-working craftsmen.23

Such startling numbers of emigrating skilled craftsmen could only exist because of an age-old tradition of artisanship among a people that were generally prohibited from owning land. Few farmers appear in the records, albeit Jews in the Shtetlach raised livestock for local consumption, kosher meat being mandatory for the Jewish community.

In Greece, under the Ottomans, Spanish and Sicilian Jews settled in Ionanina, a town on a large mountain-girded lake. "Jews became members of specialized guilds such as silversmiths, dyers, and textile manufacturers. Ionanina is famous for its silversmiths."24

Jewish Smithing in the Western Diaspora.

The extent of Jewish involvement in metallurgy also becomes visible in Central Europe through the craft of minting because minters were in the personal service of lords of the realms. The minter's names were incorporated into many of these coins.

David Haccohen minted coins in Hesse, Germany in 1180. A Jew named Sholom minted coins for the Austrian Duke Leopold V (1177-1194). The first Jew recorded by name in Austria was Shlom the mintmaster, massacred by the Crusaders in 1195. In the Wetterau region, thin coins stamped on one side only, known as bracteates, were issued between 1170 and 1180, with the name David ha-Kohen imprinted in Hebrew. In the same period Otto the Rich employed Gershon, who also struck his name in Hebrew on bracteates. Twelfth-century bracteates from Saxony show Hebrew letters. Jechiel, a Jewish minter serving the Bishop Otto of Wuerzburg (1201-1223), made coins bearing his name in Hebrew.25

Contracts between rulers and Muenzjude ("mint-Jews") were made by virtually every court. "Their activity increased even further during the unstable periods of intensive monetary activity, especially so from 1618 to 1623, the 1670's and 1680s, from 1756 to 1763, and at all times during war and turmoil...."25

Among the more prominent Jewish mintmasters of the 16th century were Phybes of Hanover (1566); Isaac Meyer (Mayer) of Prague (1546 - 1549), and the "most famous was Lippold, the mintmaster of Brandenburg who ruled the electorate's Jews with an iron hand... The nuclei of the Jewish communities of Leipzig and Dresden were formed by the Muentzjuden.... Throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries the Muentzjuden constituted the leadership of the Jewish community 25

"As early as 1063, Queen Anastasia of Hungary permitted a Jew to mint his own coins at the royal mint., Andrews Golden Bull of 1222 excluded Jews and Muslims from the office of mintmaster, but the prohibition was disregarded.25 Jews fleeing into Hungary as a result of the rampages of the Crusaders were immediately employed as minters. Silver coins struck for the Hungarian king Bela IV (1255-1270) were even marked with the Hebrew letter aleph.26

The Jews kept the secrets of glassmaking and sericulture for centuries. Another specifically Judaic art was the production of gold and silver thread. "The calligraphy of the Jewish scribes [in the Middle Ages] was of a very high order. Gold embroidery was another branch of the same decorative art, and here the Jews undoubtedly excelled. They were, naturally, clever gold and silver smiths. Their methods of refining and wire-drawing metals, especially silver, were noted for their excellence.27

It is remarkable that after Jews were expelled from one region, their arts appear with them wherever they established residence. Thus the Jews who in 1446 were expelled from Lyons, "established a silver industry in Trevoux which was unrivaled."29

It was seen in Fact Paper 17-I that Jews were virtually the exclusive sword, guns, and armor producers of Islamic North Africa. Jewish armorers were also in demand in Europe. 16th century Jewish sword makers are recorded in towns throughout Bohemia-Moravia. Making swords involved gold and silver decoration.

The city archives of Moravske-Budejovice, for example, a town almost exclusively populated by Czechs, record six Jewish sword makers. They were termed mercir in Czech, and practiced their art there up to 1562.

Jewish Guilds

The Dark Ages, in which artisanship fell to a new low, can be largely attributed to the exodus of Jewish artisans from central Europe. There were often few Christian artisans to take their place, a fact which brought about surprising consequences. The lack of Christian glassmakers for example, necessitated the issuance of special edicts exempting Jewish glassmakers from conversion.30

The dearth of Christian artisans led to arrangements by which Jewish artisans were allowed take on work with compensatory payments to Christian guilds! In addition, a "putting out" system was created, by which Jews supplied the raw materials and industrial know-how to workers, becoming, in effect, their tutors. The Jews applied this obligation to specific operations, thereby limiting the skills of the Christian subcontractors. By controlling the supply of materials the Jews additionally achieved a considerable degree of continuity. "Through this orientation," notes Salo Baron, "the survival of Jewish artisans was guaranteed and new arrangements for production and marketing were developed."

At the end of the 16th century, Jewish artisans countered by organizing their own Jewish craft guilds. Thus, a thousand years after the process of expulsions began, Jews were not only continuing their trades but were a substantial proportion of artisans in basic industries. Despite a thousand years of restrictions and expulsions, Jewish artisans still numbered enough to organize themselves against the prevailing conditions.

Jewish goldsmiths were notably patronized by the upper classes, for their products were incomparable. Isaac Goldscheider, was termed "the refiner of Prague." His son, Jacob, was granted a privilege by Rudolf II in 1586, to practice his craft in Prague and all the royal cities open to Jewish residence. The king also granted to another Jewish goldsmith, Joseph de Celui, the privilege of practicing his craft at the royal palace, and in some city districts without fear of interference. "The Hebrew term for goldsmith, tzoref, and the Czech term zlatnik, are to be found in the funerary inscriptions in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague."31

In Prussia, Jewish residence had been prohibited until 1786. The lack of competent engravers led the Prussian hierarchy to award a royal concession to a small group of Jewish goldsmiths and copper engravers to work in Gumbinen, capital of the administrative district of East Prussia. The artisans opened the doors to Prussia, for by 1812, Prussian Jews were granted citizenship and the right to travel.32

A similar situation developed in Sweden two centuries later. Jews were prohibited from residing in Sweden until 1770. The first Jew granted permission to live as a Jew in Sweden was Aron Isak, a seal engraver from Germany. His skills were such that he was offered Swedish citizenship and a substantial income if he accepted Christianity. He refused. "I would not change my religion for all the gold in the world." His unequivocal response impressed the Lord Mayor of Stockholm, who advised Isak to make a legal protest to King Gustav III. Granted citizenship by the king, he was allowed to bring enough Jewish families to Sweden to make up a minion! In 1782 legislation was adopted allowing Jews to settle in Sweden without converting..33

A silversmith worthy of attention is Barukh Shlomo Griegst, a Jewish silversmith born in Lithuania who emigrated to Denmark to become prominent in the early 20th century. Griegst's Jewish ceremonial art is still in use in the Copenhagen Synagogue.34

Jews were associated with the mining and working of all kinds of metals. The German Duke Fredrick Ulrich asked the theologians of the University of Helmstedt permission to hand over the lead trade to two Jews proficient in metals and authorize them to prospect freely through the province. The faculty agreed, and the Jews proceeded to mine lead from the Harz mountains.

Jewish Smithing in England

Jews have had an input into English metallurgy before and during [!] the period of their expulsion. Jews developed tin mining in Cornwall as early as 1198, a century before their expulsion in 1290. Significantly, fifteen years before their expulsion, King Edward I, in his Statutum de judaismo, forbade the Jews to lend money, but allowed them to continue to carry on crafts, commerce, and the lease property for ten-year periods.

Medieval Jews were deeply involved in mining. In the reign of Elizabeth they introduced improved methods of reducing copper alloys into England. In 1581, while England was still ostensibly Judenrein, a gentleman named Joachim Gaunse introduced new, improved methods for processing copper that made copper production highly profitable.

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"In the year 1581 Joachim Gaunz proposed to supply the English government with information concerning new methods of manufacturing copper, vitriol, and copperas, and of preparing copper for commerce.... Gaunz, or Gaunse, actually conducted experiments in Cumberland, in the mining districts of Keswick.35 ...In September, 1859, [Gaunz] visited Bristol, and Richard Crawley, a minister of religion there, discovered that he could speak Hebrew. Crawley was also something of a Hebrew scholar, and as a result of frequent discussion added to current rumour, Gaunz's Jewish opinions leaked out. The Jew was taken into custody before the Bristol magistrates, and in answer to inquiries the prisoner stated that he was a Jew, was born in Prague in Bohemia, was brought up in the Talmud of the Jews, was never baptized, and did not believe any of the articles of the Christian faith. The magistrates, in doubt how to deal with him, sent him before the Privy Council at Whitehall, and he was probably banished.'"

Gaunz's fate is unknown.35

The English nobility, humiliatingly obliged to import fine glassware, jewelry, and precious objets d'arte from England's friends and enemies, finally prevailed over church strictures, and the ban against Jewish residence was lifted. The Aliens List of Plymouth reveals that silversmiths were prominent among the immigrants to Cornwall in the first half of the 18th century. Included was Levy Emanuel, who was a silversmith in Truro from 1748-63; Isaac Barnett Levy was a silversmith in St. Austell from 1758-75; Moses Mordecai was a silversmith in Dartmouth, where he was joined by Nathan Joseph in 1784.36

Two of seven persons appearing in the first record of Jews arriving in Plymouth (1740) were silversmiths.37

Dorothy George, in her work London Life in the Eighteenth Century notes with characteristic understatement that Jewish jewelers and watchmakers seem to have been "not uncommon."38

George's observation is confirmed by the names of easily identifiable 18th century Jewish clock and watchmaking enterprises which appear in the work by F.J. Britten, concerning Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers. In London alone between the years 1769-1183, Britten cites the clock and watchmaking enterprises of Aaron Hart, Levy Isaacs, Joshua Israels, Judah Jacobs, Moses Levin, and Hyam Levy.39

Jews became a large portion of the watchmakers, jewelers, gold- and silver- smiths of London through the centuries. Out of the 1,161 tradesmen with identifiably Jewish names listed in the Kelly's Post Office Directory of 1883 of London, no less than 111 were of those trades!40

Local advertisements outside of London likewise reveal the ubiquitous presence of Jewish watchmakers, jewelers and smiths. Thus an ad in Jackson's Oxford Magazine, 5th May, 1770 introduces us to Bernard Levi, a Jewish watchmaker in a remote Oxfordshire town, Witney. In addition to watches, Levi's shop also featured jewelry and "silver goods." Again, the binding of an Anglo/Jewish calendar for 1785 carries an ad for Joseph Hart, "Jeweller and Watchmaker of Saffron Waldon."41

Peripheral sources provide information where Jewish records were destroyed with traumatic events. A case in point is Jewish presence in the town of Lincoln. All traces of the Jewish life in that English town have disappeared. It is nonetheless made obvious that a Jewish community flourished in Lincoln through news about many noteworthy Jews of Lincoln that show up in other contexts. Among them a number of Jewish silversmiths from Lincoln were brought to light: Samuel Samuel, a traveling jeweler who died at Louth in 1804. His son, Emanuel, was one of the first Jews to enter Oxford University. The death of Mordechai Moses of Lincoln in 1810 was recorded in Gentleman's Magazine. He was a silversmith originating from Frankfurt.

Many English Jews became Masons. Jonas Lazarus of Lincoln was registered as a jeweler and freemason. His marriage in 1810 to Rosceia was reported at length in the newspapers. The records of the Masonic lodge of the same English area registers Wolf Benjamin, another Jewish silversmith.42

England's graveyards provide testimony to Jews who worked with precious metals. In 1801 Simon Hart secured a burial ground for Jews in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in which many silversmiths were buried.43

Jewish involvement in jewelry, gold- and silver- smithing was consistent throughout England. Harold Pollins, in his Economic History of the Jews in England, culled information from a number of works on local English histories. He found that in the first part of the nineteenth century such artisans could be found plying their trades in many English industrial centers.. "As many as fifty of the men married at Hull between 1838 and 1870 were jewellers... and the outstanding lay leaders were a silversmith and a jeweller.44

"The outstanding Jew in Southampton - successively bailiff returning officer and sheriff - was Abraham Abraham, a jeweller and silversmith. From the Liverpool watchmaking firm of Moses and Lewis Samuel,

founded in the 1820s, is descended the watch and jewellery concern of H. Samuel. The small and declining community of Cheltenham contained two [Jewish] jewellers, a watchmaker a boot-and shoe-maker and a furrier. In Manchester, as early as 1841... twenty-six [out of eighty-eight] sold jewellery..."45

Exeter was a thriving center of Jewish silver-smithing activity, as the leases for a Jewish burial ground make evident. The first lease was issued in 1757 to "Abraham Ezekiel of the Parish of St. Kerrian in the city of Exxon, silversmith." The lease was revised in 1803 "in the name of Moses Mordechai, also a silversmith." Three other members are named: "Solomon Ezekiel..., silversmith; Simon Levy... silversmith; and Jonas Jonas... silversmith."

The Exeter burial plot was expanded again in 1807 to leaseholders registered as Solomon Ezekiel son ... silversmith, Simon Levy... silversmith, and Jonas Jonas... silversmith.

As though we still needed to be convinced that Plymouth was still a thriving center of Judaic silver-smithing, once again in 1827 the lease was issued to Henry Ezekiel, gentleman [!], Isaac Solomon, silversmith, Jacob Jacobs, pen manufacturer, and Morris Jacobs, silversmith!.46

We meet the name Jonas again in the United States, a silversmithing Jonas who was significantly responsible for the presidency of Abraham Lincoln!

Early Jewish Smiths in America

We first turn to an earlier Jewish artisan who impacted on both the art of silversmithing and on the American Revolution. No! We are not referring to Paul Revere, but to Revere's contemporary and acquaintance Myer Myers.

An exhibition curated by David L Barquist of the Yale University Art Gallery featured works in silver and gold by Myer Meyers (1723-1795), "one of the most accomplished craftsmen working in pre-industrial America." It featured 104 silver and gold objects created by Myers and "50 other objects that place him in the context of the tumultuous political, economic, social, and religious life of New York in the second half of the eighteenth century." The New York Times acclaimed the exhibition as "the finest large exhibition on Myers in nearly 50 years... offer[ing] voluminous insights into Myers silver work and his life."

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Myer Myers, "an American patriot, artist and Jewish community leader in New York, was the most productive silversmith working during the Late Colonial period. His ritual and secular silver constitutes the largest extant body of work by a Jewish silversmith in Europe or America before the 19th century."47 Myers is not known as well as is his contemporary, Paul Revere, whose renown stems from a dramatic demonstration of his horsemanship. Myers is, however, in the same class as Revere as an artist, and is one of the most respected artisans of his time

Myer Myers was born in New York City in 1723, the son of Solomon and Judith Myers. The family was part of a community that traced its origin back to the settlement of twenty-three Sephardic refugees from Brazil in New Amsterdam. They came to the American shores in 1654 and were granted asylum despite the opposition of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. In 1730 the family resided a block from Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Solomon and his sons were active members in the synagogue.

Myers registered as a goldsmith in 1746. He became the first acknowledged Jew within the British Empire allowed to enrol in the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths since its incorporation in 1327.

Myers formed a partnership with Benjamin Halsted and his business thrived. In the 1750's, renown as an artist won him wealthy clients, including highly placed clients from both the Tory and the Whig sides of the political spectrum of the times. During this same period he also produced magnificent rimonim, or Torah finials, four pairs of which were featured in the Yale exhibition.

Dr. David Barquist, curator of the exhibition, in a presentation at the exhibition on "That noted and proficient Mechanic: Myer Myers, Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York," wrote that "Myers's finials... are among the most extraordinary precious-metal objects produced in Colonial America."

The revolutionary war interrupted Myers's silversmithing activity. When the British besieged New York City, Myers, his wife, and six children moved with other Jewish families to Norwalk. When the British attacked and burned that town the family moved to Stratford.

Myers was a revolutionary in art as well as in political persuasion. He was one of the leaders and innovators of the Neoclassical style that broke from the Rococo style of the Colonial Period. In 1785 he was elected chairman of the newly-formed Silver Smith's Society. He remained active in the Jewish community and in the affairs of the Shearith Israel congregation until his death at the age of 72 in 1795.

Other Jewish smiths were likewise among the early Jewish settlers in America. For example, Isaiah Jacobs, silversmith, was one of the first Jewish settlers in Virginia in 1769. Again it is noteworthy that: "Much of the exquisite wrought-iron decorative designs in the [National] Cathedral are the work of Samuel Yellin, master iron craftsman."48

The Jonas family is most noteworthy among the Jewish pioneers. Their father, Benjamin Jonas, was a resident of Teignmouth, England (see above).

"The first Jew to settle in the area west of the Allegheny mountains was an English Jew, Joseph Jonas. A watchmaker and silversmith by trade, Jonas had heard that the Ohio River Valley offered many opportunities... After arriving in New York in 1816 at the age twenty-four from England, he migrated a year later to Cincinnati, Ohio."

"The story is told that an elderly Quaker woman came to see him. She queried, 'Art thou a Jew? Thou art one of God's chosen people. Wilt thou let me examine you? Well!, thou art no different from other people!"

"Jonas wrote letters describing the opportunities that existed in the Ohio River Valley." He was joined by his two brothers, Abraham and Edward and fourteen others. In 1824 a minion was possible and regular religious services could be held.

"Abraham and Joseph must have been impressive figures, because they were able to marry the Seixas sisters, Lucy, aged eighteen, and Rachel, aged twenty-two. They were the daughters of the first rabbi born in America, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Seixas had been a supporter of the American Revolution and a leader of the community in New York."

"While in Cincinnati, Abraham joined the Freemasons, a 'secret society' which welcomed both Jews and gentiles. Abraham's' first wife Lucy, died suddenly in 1825, and he soon headed for the woods of Kentucky, settling in Williamstown. In 1825. In 1829 he married Lucy Block, a member of another pioneering Jewish family living in Washington, Arkansas.... He was elected to the state legislature for four years, and organized a Masonic Lodge. In 1832 he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky."

In 1836 Abraham Jonas again moved on, first to Columbus, Illinois, and two years later to Quincy where he opened up an iron and carriage business with his two brothers. Then he took up the study of law.

"The Masons and politics continued their pull on Abraham." In 1842 he was elected as a Whig to the state legislature and a year later opened up a law partnership with Henry Asbury. "It was while he was in Springfield that Jonas got to know another 'green politician' and fellow Whig party member, Abraham Lincoln. The reward for Jonas's loyalty to the Whig party was his appointment in 1849 as postmaster of Quincy by President Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. He served until 1853."

Jonas's friendship with Lincoln would be vital. Jonas arranged the famous and critical 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate in Quincy. In December 1858 Horace Greeley, the New York Editor and prominent Republican was on a lecture tour that brought him to Quincy, a hotbed for Republicanism. Following his lecture, a group of local Republicans - the successor party to the Whigs - were discussing the upcoming 1860 election in the offices of Asbury & Jonas and who would be the presidential standard bearer for the Republican party. Asbury's suggestion that Lincoln would be a possible presidential candidate was greeted by silence. Jonas broke the silence by saying he thought it was a good idea.

At that moment, Lincoln's presidential candidacy was born!49

Thus it was that two immigrant Jewish silversmiths, Myer Myers and Abraham Jonas, had an appreciable impact on the history of the United States.

The rest is history!

Jewish Smiths in the Killing Camps

A poignant postscript to the history of the Jewish gold and silver smiths of Europe was made in Sorbibor, one of the Nazi killing camps. The true account of their escape was made into a film produced by Claude Lanzmann, following the powerful documentary "Shoah."

Jews among the captured Russian soldiers were separated in the camp. Jewish tailors were put to producing uniforms, and Jewish goldsmiths were put to converting gold (probably taken from Jewish teeth), into adornments for German officers.

"Instantly realizing that this is a place of extermination, the Jewish soldiers began formulating an escape strategy. When they learned that the camp is to be closed soon -- and all the prisoners gassed, -- they accelerated their plan... The Jewish tailors, goldsmiths and other craftsmen scheduled appointments in their workshops with the Nazis at 4 P. M. Meanwhile, other Jews were cutting the camp's power in order to disable the electric fence and lights on the periphery."50



  1. Salo W. Baron, Arkadius Kahan and others, Economic History of the Jews, Jerusalem 1975, 40, 252.
  2. Salo Baron. Ibid., 256.
  3. Salo Baron. Idem.
  4. Yitzhak Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain, I, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978, 426.
  5. Salo Baron et al. Ibid., 253.
  6. Wischnitzer, A History of the Jewish Crafts and Guilds, Jonathan David, 1965, 120.
  7. Max Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1927, 420.
  8. Nicolas de Nicolay, Les Navigations, pérégrinations et voyages faits en Turqyuie, Antwerp, 1577, 245.
  9. Wischnitzer, Ibid., 135.
  10. Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews, Hippocrene Books, 1989.
  11. Wischnitzer, Ibid., 91.
  12. Baron et al, Ibid., 252, 253.
  13. E. Duda, Krakowskie judaica, Wydawnictwo 'kraj,' Warsaw, 1991.
  14. David Ben Weinstock, The History and Culture of a Forgotten Jewish Community In Eastern Europe, Writer's Showcase, 2000, 321.
  15. Jeanette Friedman in a letter of June 20, 2001.
  16. Baron et al, Ibid.,144, 153,154, 166.
  17. Riga Passport and Travel Documents Registration List 1900, Introduction. by Constance Whippman. .
  18. Baron et al, Ibid., 176, 155, 166
  19. Stephen Hattersley, translator, Synagogue Silver for Bohemia and Moravia.
  20. Nachum T. Gidal, Jews in Germany, English Ed., 1998, 73.
  21. Jewish History of Rumania,
  22. Roger Weirs, Ed., Arcadius Kahan, Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History, Un. of Chicago Press, 1986, 59.
  23. Baron et al, Ibid., 156.
  24. Esther Goldman, Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. I, Nos. 3-4/ Winter 1997-98
  25. Baron et al, Ibid., 252-254.
  26. Wischnitzer. Ibid., 90-91
  27. Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages Meridian Books, NY, 1958, 22. Quoting from: Depping, La Juifs au Moyen Age,.221
  28. A Brief History of Portugal's Jewish Past, .
  29. Abrahams, Ibid.,.315.
  30. Kurinsky, Ibid., 174.
  31. Wischnitzer, Ibid. 1965.
  32. Christopher Ogden, Legacy,
  33. Rebecca Weiner, The Virtual Jewish History Tour, .
  34. The Jewish Museum,
  35. Abrahams, Ibid., 226, [S. Lee, Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1581-90, pp 49,617; and S. Lee, Elizabethan England and the Jews (Trans. New Shakespeare Soc., 1888, p. 159); Wolf, Publi. Angl. Jew. Exh. I, p.71].
  36. The Susser Archive, The Rise of Provincial Jewry, .
  37. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, London, 3rd. Ed. 1951.
  38. A. Rubens, "Early Anglo-Jewish Artists," Translations of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 14, 1940,126-129, citing F. J. Britten, Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers.
  39. Harold Pollins, Economic History of the Jews in England, Associated University Press, 1982 103, citing a number of sources, 105.
  40. Cecil Roth, The Rise of Provincial Jewry, 1950, The Susser Archive,
  41. Cecil Roth, Ibid., 6,7.
  42. Jewish Cemeteries in the West of England: .
  43. Harold Pollins, Ibid., citing a number of sources, 103.
  44. Pollins, Ibid., 105.
  45. History of the Burial Ground [of Exeter] .
  46. Jewish Woman,
  47. Postal and Lionel Koppman A Jewish Tourists Guide to the U.S, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1954, 106
  48. The source of all the unnoted quotes are from Donald A. Frolick, From Immigration to Integration,
  49. Michael Fox Lanzman recounts the gripping tale of the Holocaust revolt in Sorbibor. Jewish Bulletin.