As Good as Old
Master silversmith Ellis Joubert can flawlessly re-create the works of old masters to help restore antique pieces with broken or lost parts.
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS
For more than 30 years metalsmith and master silversmith Ellis Joubert has worked his magic on some of the most important pieces of bronze, copper and silver ever made. Patiently, carefully and lovingly, he applies his vast knowledge and experience to precious metal antiques.
Using handmade French tools, some dating back to the mid-1700s, and working out of a small New Orleans workshop, Joubert is one of a handful of craftsmen in the country who can restore or re-create the metal works of old masters. He is, in many ways, a throwback to the past. Like the craftsmen who came centuries before him, Joubert works from his cluttered studio and lives in an apartment above it. His black Labrador retriever, Moe, is always close by.
Workbenches made from old tree stumps display some of his craftsmanship. Nearly 100 antique hammers hang on the walls. Small jars of European metal wax fill the shelves, and cotton cloths rest atop counters. Papers and notes are scattered helter-skelter. To the uninitiated, it’s a bit chaotic, but to him, it all makes sense.
Joubert has restored metal artifacts for museums, historic homes, churches, private collectors and antique dealers from all over the world. His work comes to him by word-of-mouth, and he has never advertised. The work, it seems, finds him.
An elegant 1840s silver hot water urn, made of coin silver, a silver used before the sterling standard was established, rests on one workbench. Its top was lost, and the current owner, a Memphis collector, wanted Joubert to research and create a new one. Interestingly – and luckily – he had made an identical top as a student at LSU and still owned the original wax mold in a long-forgotten box.
“There are no shortcuts to the work I do,” he says. “It’s all by hand.” Indeed, countless hours will go into this project over the period of three months. In creating the urn’s top, Joubert will use many tools, including 15 to 20 different hammers, each curved in a different way, as he gently taps, taps, taps the silver into shape. He’ll buff it until the patina emerges to create a gloss exactly like the original piece. The years that separate the
170-year-old urn from its new top will be indiscernible.
An 18th-century bronze Roman statesman figure is another project. Joubert’s task is to re-create the standard the ancient soldier once held and to bring the bronze’s patina back to its
“In figural bronzes, surface is everything,” he says. “The restorer has to figure out how the surface was prepared, the type of finish used, the process of application, the color. As a final step, the old European masters hired apprentices to rub their hands over the pieces to soften the finish. Basically, they caressed the piece
until the gloss was perfect.”
Over time the bronze statesman’s head was flattened, and the softly etched curls were gone. Joubert has delicately carved new hair for the elegant soldier. “It’s sort of a ‘Bronze Hair Club for Men,’” he says, laughing. It is almost impossible to tell where the old hair was and the new “toupee” begins.
Joubert took a circuitous route to becoming a renowned metalsmith. He spent time at Delgado studying aviation maintenance and later at LSU majoring in Asian studies, history and architecture. But it was in his metalsmith and jewelry-making class that everything clicked.
He also credits his now-deceased grandfather, a master machinist and early aviator, for planting the seeds early in his life.
“I used to work with my grandfather in his shop, and even as a child, I was drawn to the metalwork he did on outboard motors and small engines,” he says. “The work I do is like that, with a big historical, creative bent.”
He is a student of the masters, and early Gorham silversmiths and those of the Martele period are also favorites.
“The work done by the French and early Russians is unequalled,” he says.
By any standards, Joubert's work rivals the best of his generation. The centuries-old bronze, copper and silver pieces in his eccentric workshop have all been brought back to life under his care and will thrive for generations to come.