Meet the Haymakers - Christopher Hamilton, medal maker

Awarded annually since Britain’s Olympic year in 2012, Hay Festival Medals draw inspiration from the original Olympic medal given for poetry. With Athena as muse, Medals are given to extraordinary writers and thinkers (find out about this year's recipients here). Each year silversmith Christopher Hamilton crafts them locally. Here he tells us a little bit about that process...

You've made the Hay Festival Medals since they were first awarded in 2012, how did you get involved?

[Festival Director] Peter Florence first contacted me in 2012, the year of London's Olympics. It is a huge privilege to make these medals and one to which I look forward each year, without expectations. 

Tell us about the Medal design...

The medals feature an Athenian owl on the obverse, copied from a silver coin in the British Museum, dating back to between 450BC and 406BC. The name and category of each winner is engraved by hand on the reverse and "Hay Festival" carved around the circumference of the collar. The medals are hallmarked with my CH sponsor’s mark, which is lodged at assay offices in Edinburgh, London and Birmingham. Because Athena guards him, ‘So she does’ - Christopher Logue.

How long does it take to create each Medal? What's the process like?

Ages. These ‘collar’ medals are struck, not cast. Compression of the metal produces a harder and brighter finish, more suitable for engraving. The drop hammer method employs a balance of intuition and brute force. A half-ton hammer is lifted by a rope attached to a leather clutch pulled against a rotating spindle and dropped at a point determined entirely by ‘feel’. Dropped from too high the hammer would squish the medal; from too low …the impression would be too faint. 

A die (a mould-like tool used in manufacturing to cut or shape hard materials) was first cut in 2012. The reverse of dies are made of steel and a ‘try’ piece is struck into lead (for approval) before hardening. Eventually, both halves find their temper by a process of heating and quenching, whereupon they can repeatedly be struck without shattering. The reverse of the medal is flat and must be perfectly polished for engraving by hand. Silver wire is fashioned into a ring and soldered to the body of the medal above the ‘owl’.

Silver is prone to ‘fire stain’ whenever the metal is heated to a temperature at which its surface can oxidise. So a good deal of effort goes into preventing this and into a final polish, which is done by hand. As is the engraving.

How long have you been a silversmith for? How did you learn your craft?

I was made apprentice goldsmith to Luigi Ugolini, in his workshop near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, in 1972. In the 1990’s I discovered Birminghham and the best SILVERsmiths in the world.

How does it feel to know that some of the most influential writers and thinkers are given these medals that you create?

To make medals for accomplished women and men is a huge privilege. I do not take the invitation for granted and I have felt a thrill each time.

Are there any of the past medal recipients you particularly admire?

Jeanette Winterson, (with whom I had already worked on a South Bank Show, in Venice), Alan Bennett, John le Carré, Simon Armitage and Karl Ove Knausgård, whose name was so long we had to shift the 'Hay Festival' and date part of the engraving out to the collar of the medal - where it remains today.

Who are you looking forward to hearing at Hay Festival 2019? 

People I have not yet heard of.

What book would you recommend to people interested in finding out more about silver work?

AV Herbert Maryon’s Metalwork and Enamelling. And if people want to learn more about making everything then Spons' Workshop Receipts.

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Find out more about the Hay Festival Medals here. Explore the full Hay Festival Wales programme and book tickets here. And to find out more about Christopher Hamilton's wider work, visit christopher-Hamilton.co.uk.