Q&A with Gaetano Saliba, director and master artisan of Saliba’s Gold & Silversmith.
When your passion for filigree was discovered ?
Jewellery making came to me trough my family. My grandfather was a full time jeweler, my father was also jeweler, but also SA technician and hallmarker in Office of the Consul for Goldsmith and Silversmith. He passed his knowledge on me, that encouraged me a lot. When I was 14 years old I started working at Viktor Azzopardi Ltd. as a full time Silversmith. 8 years I used to work as a jeweler but not filigree maker. That came accidentally one day, when I discovered unfinished frames, ready to be filled with small twisted silver spirals – to build up filigree Maltese cross. My colleague started producing them, but he wasn’t motivated to complete them, so I decided to continue finalising what he stated. That was my first contact with filigree, the moment when I “attached” to this precious technique.
When your business stated ?
In 1989 I decided to establish my own business. My beginning was in garage which I equipped with machinery for wire production, workshop for filigree manufacturing and chemical supply for cleaning and electroplating. Being filigree maker in my case is not just twisting of the wire and soldering it with the frame. The process that is done in my workshop is much more complex.
I start production from raw material. Pure silver grains are being melted and poured into the molds to create an ingot from which we will pull the wires. The same wires are used for filigree making.
The jewellery pieces are ready after a long process of cleaning, polishing and electroplating, which is also done by me in my workshop.
Since I’m a craftsperson more than an artist, I do my best to work in the production of more than one single item. To be able to do that, I had to explore how to reproduce the same item in quantity, having all items even. Also, the challenge is to be fast in the production, because otherwise it won’t be profitable. I learned how to create new tools and machinery, how to apply basics of silversmiths for filigree making, and also chemistry for cleaning and electroplating jewellery.
Did you ever wanted to give up of filigree ?
Trough my over 30 years long business career I met many difficulties, I had hard times, but never thought about giving up. I saw every single problem as a challenge that I have to succeed. Today I’m very proud to say that I managed to go “trough hardships to the stars”
Is there still demand for filigree on market ?
Yes, the demand is still there. Traditional designs are less popular than in past, but good thing is that we modernised our products. We are constantly following what is new and in fashion, that inspires us for our creations. Today, apart from traditional Maltese crosses, butterflies and flowers, we are producing geometrical shapes, abstract, symbolic, animals… trying to have something for everyone.
From where do you source materials for filigree making?
As previously mentioned, I’m making them in my workshop. Only pure silver I import from abroad. Also I supply many artisans, craftsman and students with materials. Locally and abroad. I’m able to make variety of wires and plates for jewellery production.
How do you sell your items ?
In past we used to supply many shops over the island. By the years things changed, shops found more profitable solution for them, they started importing filigree from abroad, mostly from Far East, and they sold it here pretending that is Maltese filigree. When we realized what is happening, we stopped supplying shops, and we started selling directly to our customers. We wanted to show how filigree is done, the tools and techniques of this craft. We wanted to give something that rarely can be found nowadays.
The solution that we found good for us is that all our items are sold inside our branded boxes, together with the certificate which is guarantee that everything is handmade in Malta from Sterling silver 925. During the purchase each certificate is signed by me and stamped with the date. Besides participating in local and international markets and fairs, we started selling to different hotels, directly to our customers, on weekly basis. Moreover, our items are being sold online on our website and social media.
Do you teach your craft ?
Yes, aside from teaching my employees, I’m also teaching students who come for the internship and anyone else who is interested to learn more about filigree.
We are offering 5 different courses, depending of level of knowledge and skills they are willing to reach.
Our aim is to bring Maltese tradition closer to people. We want to share our knowledge and experience and to encourage others to continue keeping this craft alive.
Teaching is not only done in our workshop, we are more than happy to demonstrate filigree making even on the local markets, social media and our website.
Apart from filigree teaching, we are also explaining silversmiths, marketing, packaging, accounts. Everything that is needed to set up a business.
I’m very happy when I see someone who is really interested to learn everything about filigree. That means that there will be someone after me and my generation who is still working in production of this fiddly pieces of jewellery.
What are your plans for future ?
Currently Malta is facing big problem with filigree. Filigree is being imported from Far East. Many filigree makers stopped producing because they are not finding the market for their products. But also, unfortunately, many filigree makers started importing as well, and mixing locally made filigree with foreign.
We decided to keep going, and to fight for something that has value, something that it’s more than jewellery, it’s part of our heritage.
Our point is to bring Maltese tradition closer to people. We want to share our accomplishment and to encourage others to continue keeping our craft alive.For now, our clients are mostly tourist, but we are trying our best to show to our people that Maltese filigree is still in fashion. We all should be proud of it.
Sad thing is that filigree is today on the list of endangered crafts, by the researchers of Malta Crafts Foundation. If we don’t take an action now, our younger generations may not know what is filigree.