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By Marilyn Busch
Susanne Blackinton will tell you that the Kentucky Derby has been a part of her life for what seems like forever. “I remember as a little girl, waking up to a little horse toy after my parents came back from the Derby,” she says, “I always recognized the grandness of the event.” As a high school student, she dreamed that one day she would be the one to make the famed Kentucky Derby trophy. For most girls growing up in rural New England that dream would simply be unobtainable. For Susanne, who now proudly stands as the fifth-generation of silversmiths carrying on the Blackinton family name, it was her destiny.
Tucked into a quiet corner of an old textile mill in Smithfield, one could almost miss the unassuming studios of S.R. Blackinton and New England Copperworks. Owners Susanne and her husband Bill Juaire seem to prefer keeping a low profile and many in the area are surprised to learn that they are the artisans responsible for creating the solid gold Kentucky Derby Trophy. The 14 karat handmade gold cup bears the likeness of a thoroughbred horse, its jockey at the reigns and a filigree horseshoe for good luck. While luck certainly has played a small part over the years, the couple’s reputation as a leader in the art of gold and silversmithing is due in part to their dedication to time honored crafting techniques that date back over 155 years.
Susanne’s great-grandfather established the family business of R. Blackinton Company in North Attleboro in 1862. The business passed to her grandfather, who trained her father who then went out on his own to form New England Sterling. It was there that Susanne was introduced to the family business at age 14. “I grew up in the factory pretty much,” she says, adding that it was a natural progression; “I always liked working with my hands and creating things.”
The Blackinton family name has long been intertwined with the crafting history of the Derby trophy. The contract itself passed through a few companies over the years, but once the trophy creation moved to this area and never left. New England Sterling remained the primary artisans tapped to create the piece, leading to S.R. Blackinton holding the Churchill Downs commission today.
It was also at New England Sterling that she was later introduced to Bill Juaire, the man who would someday become her husband. Bill was her father’s head spinner, a talented craftsman whose skill in taking a simple metal circle and working it artfully into a trophy cup, bowl or lantern was something unique.
“He has that special something that is innate and cannot be taught,” explains online curator Whisper Editions that sells his commissions; “He is able to feel the shape before the metal is even spun.” Susanne is the first to agree. “You have to have the right touch,” she explains, “…and Bill’s got it. He can make anything.”
Susanne herself would be a good judge, as she is a skilled metalsmith in her own right, having been taught the trade by accomplished silversmith Walter Bigos. A WWII veteran, Bigos was a self-taught silversmith out of necessity (no one would teach him their “trade secrets”) and Susanne credits him to this day for mentoring her in his craft. “It was the best training I could have had,” reflects Susanne, “I love Walter, and my debt to him never can be repaid.” Bigos, who is 91, has retired to North Smithfield and still sees Susanne at least once a week.
It takes Susanne, Bill and their small team of craftsmen almost five months to create the Derby trophies. Aside from the large solid gold winner’s trophy, there are three miniature sterling silver cups presented to the winning jockey, breeder, and trainer and the official mint julep cups used by the Governor for the winner’s toast.
The process is completely hands-on for every artisan involved. Susanne does her metalsmithing in a modest workspace in the corner of the shop, using the same exact techniques, even the same tools, passed down from Walter.
Bill will make the actual gold trophy cup, exactly as he first did when he spun his first Derby trophy in 1990. After the first polishing, Susanne then starts the detail work. It is both delicate and daunting, especially in light of the propane torch she must use to solder the piece together at roughly 1500 degrees.
Any nerves that she might have had the first few times in crafting the trophy have passed, and she absolutely beams when asked about her work. “It’s fun, I really love what I do,” she says.
As for fulfilling her dream of making the Kentucky Derby trophy, she adds, “To actually be making it now and the connection it has in my heart with my three favorite men – my dad, my husband Bill and my mentor Walter – well that is indescribable.”