Swami Silver is the name given to a distinctive style of silverware that originated in the South Indian city of Madras (now known as Chennai) during the British rule. This style is characterized by figures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Variety of objects emerged in Swami Silver design. These included trays, tea sets, tankards, jugs, goblets, ewers, trophies, visiting card cases. Swami in the local Tamil language means God or deity and the term Swami Silver obviously originated from the proliferation of images of Gods and deities on these silver objects.
Swami Silver was pioneered and popularized by an English company, P Orr and Sons. The Orr brothers, Peter and Alexander arrived in Madras from Scotland in 1843. They made their initial fortune by selling ice, before joining the watchmaker George Gordon & Co. When Gordon retired in 1849, they took over the business and soon diversified into gold, diamonds and silverware. The jewelry business was suspended in 1944 at the height of World War –II and never recovered. The company went back to its original watch business and is currently under a new management.
The high quality workmanship of P Orr and Sons reached the zenith of its fame and reputation in 1875 and when the Prince of Wales visited India in 1876, they were commissioned to make special ceremonial gifts by various Maharajas. Maharajas of Indore and Baroda got Swami tea services made, while Maharaja of Cochin commissioned a complete ensemble of Swami dessert service. In 1876, P Orr and Sons was designated as “Manufacturing Jewellers, Gold and Silversmiths to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, By Special Appointment”.
The silversmiths who worked in the atelier of P Orr and Sons were initially British, but soon Indian craftsmen were working side by side with them. Swami silver combined English form with Hindu motifs and is characterized by extraordinary attention to detail. The deities are depicted in exceptionally crisp high relief achieved by some brilliant repoussé. The deities displayed include Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman, Lakshmi etc. Many of the Swami Silver pieces were monogrammed “ORR & Sons, Madras.”, “P. Orr & Sons of Madras,” or just “ORR”.
Competition began emerging for P Orr and Sons, mainly in Bangalore and Tiruchirapalli. The first was Krishnaiah Chetty & Sons in Bangalore. Though highly prized for its ornate design, Swami Silver had its share of critics in England for the excessive use of Hindu motifs. Omarsi Maoji of Kutch cashed in on this need for secular designs and their Swami Silver featured more of animals and birds and less of Gods.