Crowning glory

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A crisp morning in mid-January and a pale, wintry light struggles through the windows of the Edinburgh workshop where Jon Hunt surveys a sheet of sterling silver, recently delivered by a bullion dealer.

"That’s because our heads aren’t round, they’re oval," explains Hunt, joking that "not a lot of people know that", as he meticulously examines the dull, grey metal - 925 parts out of 1,000 pure silver - which at present resembles nothing more than aluminium. The silversmith lights up "a large, bushy flame", about a foot long, and begins to anneal the metal (to strengthen it and drive out any impurities), slowly heating it until it is literally red hot at 600C (silver melts at about 800C). Once it cools down, it’s in a malleable state, and work can begin that same afternoon on a truly historic project.

Over the next five months, behind closed doors, Hunt and his colleagues will work slowly and painstakingly to recreate a long-lost crown-coronet, a magnificent and unique "tribute to the Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland, his ancient office, and our gracious Sovereign".

The Heraldry Society of Scotland commissioned the jewellers Hamilton & Inches to recreate the Right Honourable Lord Lyon’s crown of office to mark the Queen’s Jubilee and the quadricentenary of the Union of the Crowns. Last September, Romilly Squire, the chairman of the society, proposed the replacement of this important piece of regalia, absent these three and a half centuries.

"We are looking to our past to prepare for our future," he explained. The commission was won on behalf of Hamilton & Inches by its director, Denzil Skinner. All the work has been carried out in the company workshops, managed by Jon Hunt, two floors above the shop.

The first reference to a Scottish King of Arms dates from 1297, although the first recorded appointment was made by King Robert the Bruce in 1318. At some unknown point, the Lyon King of Heralds began, on solemn occasions, to wear a coronet of office, which was a copy of the Scottish crown. Then it was lost.

All that remains is a wonderful description, written by Lord Lyon Sir James Balfour of Denmilne, baronet, recounting his own creation and coronation in 1630: "As for his Crowne it is maid closse, all of beatine Gold, eftir the model of the imperiall crowne of Scotland, not sett with stones, but onlie enmbled, its cape [cap] being of crimpsone velvet doubled and uplayed with ermines..."

Hamilton & Inches recreated a version of the Lord Lyon’s crown-coronet for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 - the first time a Lord Lyon had participated in a coronation for 80 years - and it has been worn at every coronation since.

"The original crown had evaporated," says Skinner. "So the firm made a copy of the English pattern King of Arms’ coronet of acanthus leaves, complete with Latin motto around the rim. But, last year, the Heraldry Society decided to replace this with a new crown modelled, as it traditionally was, on the Scottish crown, executed in silver and gilded by Scottish craftsmen and women."

Months of work followed for designer Nicola Williams. After close consultation with the Heraldry Society and the 35th Lord Lyon, Robin Blair, who had to approve her design concept at every stage, Williams came up with a design based on the Scottish Crown. "But I hope that it’s a contemporary take," says the County Durham-born, Edinburgh-based silverware designer.

"It’s bold, stylised and geometric, and it differs in some details, such as having fewer crosses and fleurs de lys than the Scottish crown. Of course, it doesn’t have sumptuous enamelling or jewellery like the original, but it’s chased to convey the impression of jewels. There is an orb on the original, but after much debate we came up with a lion that I think looks very dignified.

"I certainly don’t expect ever to design another crown," she admits. "After all, there isn’t much call for them nowadays. However, it’s been a real privilege to do this one."

It’s her beautifully detailed drawings that Hunt and his co-workers, the Greek-born chaser and silversmith Panos Kirkos, silversmiths Michael Gompertz and Sarah Cannon, and the appropriately named polisher, Colin Golder, are using as blueprints to fashion the new crown.

Shortly after bending and soldering the silver into an oval, Hunt is getting into a pickle. In order to clean it and remove the fluxes - the soldering elements - the oval is soaked in "safety pickle", a strong alkaline solution. "We used to use sulphuric acid," he says, "but it was quite dangerous. Now we dip it in manufactured pickle, which is heated to about 50C." The metal stays there for about five minutes and, when it emerges, it is white and looks nothing like silver. When it cools, it’s washed off and the serious work begins.

The surface is hammered to ensure it is an exact oval. Silver section wires are fitted and soldered on before Hunt files out all the hammer marks and the silver is polished by Golder. Then Kirkos begins the hand-chasing, a task on which he’ll spend more than 100 hours over the next couple of months, although he will also be working on other commissions, such as chasing an exquisite bowl for a different client, as well as creating silver stags, horses and wildlife.

"Panos is an artist," says Williams. "I’ve never seen work of such quality." He works on the crown from the inside, knocking out the peaks, such as the centres of the domes, stars and fleurs de lys, setting the piece into pitch - tar - which he has heated up over a soft flame to produce goo. He draws the design on with a biro - in reverse - using carbon paper to repeat the motifs.

At this stage, spacing is crucial, because the patterns must run on exactly. Kirkos is using three-inch-long chasing punches that he makes himself from steel - his workbench is littered with hundreds of them, all with different tips for different jobs. He knows instinctively which one is right for the work in hand. "And he always knows exactly where they are," observes Hunt. "If you move one, heaven help you!"

It takes enormous patience, admits Kirkos, pouring molten pitch into the crown, as if filling a saucepan with treacle. Then he commences work on the outside, putting in the fine detail and chasing back the metal. He has also carved 12 oak leaves in wax. They are then cast by a lost wax caster, Tim Lukes, who makes the mould for the silver to be poured into and who also carves the lion to top the crown.

But it is Kirkos who eventually chases the surfaces, with some help from Sarah Cannon. The oak leaves embellish the four arches, which Hunt has been making in the meantime. He estimates it has taken him about 50 hours of smithing. The arches are removable, so special bolts have to be fitted inside the rim to transform the closed crown into an open coronet.

After the pitch has been removed and the crown cleaned, Michael Gompertz begins piercing out all the intricate holes in the crown. He uses a small saw with a blade almost as thin as a hair, but "which can go through a finger like butter". By now it’s late April and, suddenly, the crown comes to glorious life.

"Up to now, it’s looked more like a large serviette ring," observes Hunt, clearly proud of his team’s artistry and skill. The arms are bent into shape and fitted and the whole is finished off with file and emery paper.

In the company van, the crown is dispatched in May to the Assay Office in London to have the silver tested. They take tiny scrapings from individual parts of the piece to check that it’s pure silver, weighing it before and after. Needless to say, it passes and is ready for hallmarking, with the sponsors’ mark, the lion rampant, to indicate it is sterling silver; and with the European Convention mark, a castle, to say it is hallmarked in Edinburgh; and the date letter, which is "D" for 2003.

On its return to Edinburgh, Golder takes over for two days’ intensive work. "This is a highly dangerous process that takes a lot of patience," remarks Hunt. Golder uses felt mops, which he makes himself, on a spindle revolving at 3,000 revs, and employs pumice powder mixed with vegetable oil to polish the silver. "It’s an art. If you don’t know what you are doing you get awful grooves in the metal," explains Hunt.

Golder then uses calico mops with special polishes. Finally, rouge is applied and the crown becomes silvery-white and lustrous. Swansdown mops give the final finish, known in the trade as "the black finish", meaning it resembles the glass in a mirror.

Now the crown is ready to be gilded. This is a magical, almost alchemical process - although the metal is, of course, not base. The spotlessly clean crown is dipped in a vat of gold plate solution and a current is passed through it for about two hours. When it is lifted out, it has a gold deposit. All it needs is a light lick over with a mop from Golder.

"Wow! It looks rich!" exclaims Hunt, surveying the results of five months’ intense work as they prepare to engrave the three makers’ names - Panos Kirkos, Colin Golder and Jon Hunt - inside the rim.

In late May, Denzil Skinner flies to London with Scotland’s crowning glory, escorting it through security checks, and delivering it to the robemakers and tailors Ede & Ravenscroft in Chancery Lane, where it is lined with quilted white satin. They fit the crimson satin cap, the sumptuous ermine trim and a detachable gold braid tassel (to be used when the arches are removed).

One June morning, Hunt places an imposing purple box on the worktable in his office. He dons a pair of white cotton gloves. "Ta-da!" he exclaims, gently lifting the magnificent gilded crown-coronet from the box’s cushioned interior. He raises the crown into the golden rays of summer sunshine streaming through the windows. It is a sight to behold, a thing of great beauty and a glowing tribute to the skills of a talented group of men and women - Scots, English and Greek.

The cost of the piece is confidential. "But it’s good value for money," insists Hunt, as his secretary, Sandra Meldrum, prepares the invoice for their client.

The crown weighs exactly 787 grams. The Prince of Wales’ crown for his 1969 investiture had to be topped with a gold-sprayed golf ball, because it was thought solid gold would have been too heavy to bear. But nothing so makeshift for Scotland’s Lord Lyon King of Arms. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown? The Lord Lyon must sleep well these nights, for he may never actually wear it, I’m told. Surely, I ask, you’ll try it on for size? "I would be very, very hesitant about doing that," replies Robin Blair - "please call me Lyon" - as we sit in his office at the Court of the Lord Lyon in East Register House in Princes Street, which is where he sits in judgment in his court of law, as well as dealing with the granting of coats-of-arms.

"The crown is worn only at a coronation," he explains, adding that part of the Westminster Abbey service includes the peers of the realm putting on their crowns. "The Lyon and the three English Kings of Arms put on their coronets at the same time. But quite what form the coronation may take the next time it is held is uncertain as there may be no hereditary peers in the House of Lords at that point, so it’s possible the Lyon’s crown may never be worn. The new crown is a very splendid design, though."

It’s also a superb, generous addition to his gorgeous ceremonial garb, which includes uniform, boots, splendid tabard and knee-length, embroidered velvet cloak. It’s all topped by various gold chains, and he also carries a heavy baton.

"The whole thing weighs two stone," confides the Lord Lyon. "You don’t move very quickly when you have all that on, I can tell you!"

Noon at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Thursday, July 3: The recreation of the crown-coronet of the Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland is presented to Her Majesty the Queen. Dressed in his best navy-blue suit, Jon Hunt attends, one of just three guests at this intimate ceremony. The others are Romilly Squire and Mark Dennis of the Heraldry Society of Scotland. Protocol forbids Hunt from revealing details of his conversation with the Queen. But, he says with a modest smile, he thinks she was pleased.

• The crown-coronet of the Lord Lyon King of Arms will be displayed at Hamilton & Inches, George Street, Edinburgh, during the Edinburgh International Festival, from August 1.