A. Werner Silversmith maintains silver lining on Water Street
Bookended by AJ Bombers and Water Street Brewery, Water Street is famous for three Bs: bars, burgers and bros. The tightly packed combination of those three things has made the area a popular nighttime hot spot – or a polarizing one depending on your nightlife preferences.
Yet amongst all of the bars and clubs is something unexpected: A. Werner Silversmith, a little buried treasure – quite literally considering the heavily monitored glass cases and shelves containing shining, beautifully repaired and refinished unique silver pieces – hiding in plain sight in the middle of one of the city's busiest nightlife hot spots.
"When I first started working down here, the only bar that was here was a bar on the corner," recalled Michael Wied, who operates the silversmith shop with his brother Dennis. "When my dad took this place over, there were five different plating shops on Water Street. We're the only ones left here."
Located at 1241 N. Water St. right next to AJ Bombers, the tiny little grayish blue silversmith shop – along with Milwaukee Moulding & Frame – serves as one of the last working remnants of what Water Street once looked like, filled with factories and businesses like Walter's Trains, Yellow Cabs, a lithographic company and a plumbing outfit. Obviously things have changed considerably since those days, but A. Werner Silversmith keeps going, polishing, plating and making the old seem brand new for well over 100 years.
The company's namesake Adolf Werner originally opened the shop up – at the time located in the former building (now a parking lot) next door to its current location – in 1888 after arriving in America from Austria with his wife. Back then, their current building was a diner and, according to Weid, "a house of ill-repute" for the Milwaukee mafia.
In the '40s, the shop was turned over to Adolf Werner's son Leo, and it was while he was running the silversmith business that the Weid family get involved. Weid's father Douglas worked for Werner for about a year and a half before Werner died. He passed the business along to his wife, but when she wasn't particularly interested in the business, Douglas and his brother bought the business from her.
"My dad studied what we call our plating bibles – old, old books – and he just read up on stuff and learned and put in a lot of hours," Weid said. "He self-taught himself, and he did it. He worked seven days a week, 10-hour days."
For about 50 years, Douglas Weid shepherded the company, moving the shop to its current smaller location around 1956, cutting back on the techniques that were becoming less in-demand – like brass and copper plating – and teaching his young sons the delicate art of silversmithing.
"I would've never gotten into this business if it hadn't been for my dad," Weid said. "We'd come down here on Saturdays and monkey around – same with my brother. He remembers after the Kennedy assassination, he did a lot of gold plating for half-dollars. It was a popular thing, so he used to sit down here and gold plate. You kind of learned by mistake. When you screw up, you don't ever do it again. I've melted pieces or buffed too hard and taken out patterns. It's just something you say, 'OK, don't do that again.' There is no real schooling for metal finishing; it's kind of a hands-on thing."
Eventually, Dennis joined onto A. Werner Silversmith full-time in 1973, while Mike soon hopped on board full-time as well in 1981. There, they worked with their father until the two brothers became the owners, still using many of the same old-time, non-computerized processes and methods – an often hours-long mix of washing, rinsing, buffing, more washing, more rinsing, the occasional hydrochloric acid etching, plating, brushing, oxidizing, polishing, more polishing and even more washing – that their father taught them almost half a century ago.
It's a process that's gotten the small shop jobs polishing and perfecting very intricate, not to mention pricey, pieces for everyday people, churches – one particularly recent job that came to Weid's mind was for material from a Green Bay cathedral dating back several centuries – and even NASA.
"Our work has actually been on the moon," Weid said. "My dad did gold plating in the '60s through AC Sparkplug that used to be in Milwaukee, and they had a contract with NASA to do electrical contacts. It's just one of those things, not too many people can say that."
Unfortunately, as times have changed, so has the silversmithing business – often not for the best.
"Years ago, younger people used to be intrigued by getting grandma's old silver or that kind of thing; not so much anymore," Weid said. "We've become a disposable society, and nobody wants to hold onto that crap anymore. People have to downsize. It's not the way it used to be. A lot of people used to like getting grandma's silverware, and people don't entertain the way they used to. You throw a party now, it's red Solo cups and paper plates, not let's get out the fine China and the silverware and dress up.
"There's still people into antiques and collectors – not as many as there used to be," he continued. "You have to think there's less and less of this stuff around too, because of the fact that it's older. If it wasn't taken care of, it's probably rotten. We still have work, but it's not what it used to be."
Even with the turbulent business and economic times, however, the Weids and A. Werner Silversmith show no signs of shutting down or ending the shop's unique position on Water Street. Plus, for Weid, the essence of his job still serves as a shiny enough silver lining to keep working amongst the bars and the bros.
"It's fun to take a piece that's been kind of mangled, and you can straighten it up. Put pieces back together the way they should be and make it look like something."
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