The Huguenots were French Protestants or French Calvinists who belonged to the Protestant Church of France. They were persecuted because of their religion.
Between 1550 and 1580, members of the Reformed church in France became known as Huguenots. These reformers felt that the Catholic Church needed a radical change especially in its rituals, hierarchy and papacy. The Roman Catholics were intolerant of the Huguenots and in 1534 the Parliament led by King Francis I considered measures for their extermination.
The population of Huguenots grew rapidly, some estimate over two million by 1572. Both groups, Catholics and Huguenots were violent against each other attacking congregants and churches. This led to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of August 24 to October 3, 1572; where close to 70,000 Huguenots were killed. Many Huguenots found refuge in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, England, Netherland and America.
Many Huguenots who immigrated to new lands occupied important places in society where they controlled industries such as papermaking, garment production and trade. Many were silversmiths who brought their skills to Britain and America.
Among those who immigrated to Britain are Paul Lamerie, Pierre Platel and Lewis Mattayer. America gained masters such as Bartholomew Le Roux, Cesar Ghiselin, Thauvet Besley, Paul Revere among others.
According to historians the reason for the considerable number of silversmiths among the immigrants was probably as much economic as religious. Louis XIV had order the melting of all silver to pay for the war and the building of the palace at Versailles, making the metal a very scarce and expensive commodity for silversmiths.
Silver was used to create elaborate pieces in European courts and was a symbol of status among wealthy European families. In colonial America silver allowed families to save money since banks did not exist, it was also considered a symbol of status.
This group of French Huguenot designers and craftsmen found an emerging market in America and England. Economic prosperity and increased supply of silver found in the New World created the perfect market for French Huguenot silversmiths. During the late seventeenth through the mid eighteen centuries some of the most magnificent domestic silver was produced. The market for silver objects expanded to domestic articles such as saucers, tea sets, bowls, plates, etc.
In America Huguenot silversmiths lived along the Atlantic coast in large cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia where most of the wealthy commissioners lived. These silversmiths were remarkably adaptable to their new country as they were quick to learn new forms and market it to their new clients.
Early Huguenot work in America is noticeable for its simplicity and lack of ornate decoration. After the middle of the 18th Century their work began to take distinctive rococo details following the French fashion of the period.
By the turn of the 19th Century most Huguenot silversmiths in America had become completely assimilated. Most had anglicized their names and spoke only English.