Its license plates may boast about the state's "Famou Potatoes," but Idaho's fortunes are founded on a somewhat classier commodity. "Potatoes are really only big in the southern part of the state," Robert M. Johnston explains. "Idaho's biggest income-producer is the silver mines."

Outside of seventh-grade geography classes, few Marylanders probably give much thought to the leading exports of such a distant state. For Mr. Johnston, though, the mines of Idaho have been a major preoccupation this year. As principal of R. M. Johnston & Associates, a Roland Park company which bills itself as "America's only consulting firm specializing in silverware," he served as coordinator of a silver design competition sponsored by Idaho's mining industry. The competition, open to design students across the United States, was held in honor of the state's 1990 centennial celebrations.


"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," the Lutherville resident says with a laugh, but he has been involved with the silver industry since his graduation from Yale. He started as a salesman with International Silver, then progressed to top management positions. After 27 years in the business, he met the Stieff silver family of Baltimore at a trade conference, and was hired as vice president of marketing. He remained with Stieff from 1975 until its merger with Kirk in 1981, and then devoted his time to the Sterling Silversmiths Guild of America, the silver trade association.

As executive vice president of the guild, Mr. Johnston conducted a number of guild-sponsored design competitions. Several years ago, he took the winning student designers to a silver mine in Idaho. One of the executives they met, Dennis Wheeler of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corporation, remembered the occasion, and convinced the members of Idaho's centennial committee that a silver competition would be a fitting tribute to the state's mining heritage.


Mr. Johnston -- who by then had started his consulting firm -- was signed on to manage the competition, sponsored by the Hecla and Sunshine mining companies, the Idaho Commission on the Arts and Silver Trust International as well as Coeur d'Alene Mines Corporation and the centennial committee.

"There are only about 50 schools in the country who teach metalware design," Mr. Johnston says. "I sent a mailing out to all of these at the beginning of the last school year. Many of the schools made this competition a part of the curriculum. The student would have part of his time cut out for the project, and would get credit for it."

Contestants were also reimbursed by the competition for the cost of the silver they used -- an important incentive to students on a budget.

An impressive roster of judges was lined up: Jeanne V. Sloane, vice president of Christie's auction house; Ulysses G. Dietz, curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum; Robert Mehlman, professor of decorative arts at New York University; and silver dealer Eric Norman Shrubsole. "He's probably the pre-eminent dealer in London and New York," Mr. Johnston explains. "He's the type of guy who deals in $300,000 Paul Revere coffee pots."

Eighty-two students from 30 schools contributed slides of their jewelry, flatware, holloware and sculptural items for preliminary judging at the Waldorf-Astoria. The 40 semifinalists then shipped their work to Baltimore, where it was kept in a bonded warehouse until time for the final judging at the Waldorf. In June, first- through fifth-place prize winners were chosen, as well as a handful of honorable mentions, and an additional cash prize was

awarded to the creator of the best flatware set.

"Flatware is much more difficult to do," Mr. Johnston says. "You have six inches of metal to be imaginative with, and that's a real challenge. In past years we've had trouble getting the kids to make flatware, so in recent years we've put a premium on it."

The competition's top prize went to a Georgia State student, Beverly Auerbach, for a silver candlestick whose lines suggest the art deco architecture of the Empire State Building.


"This is unusual in that the center column is a tube of silver, and around it is a silver cloth, a mesh, which she wove from wire," Mr. Johnston says. "Every time a wire broke she had to start all over again."

The second-place winner, Wade L. Callender of the University of Houston, took home both the second prize and the flatware prize for a classically handsome flatware set with a wide band of lapis lazuli at the base of each piece.

Mr. Callender is by no means a "kid": "He had a full career with Shell Oil as a chemist, but was always good with his hands, and used to make things out of silver in the cellar," Mr. Johnston says. "So he went back to school. This is the first competition he's entered."

Julia R. Woodman, who also studied at Georgia State, took third-place honors for her curvaceous tea set, which is, Mr. Johnston says, "a stunning thing -- it's a little reminiscent of something Georg Jensen, the famous Scandinavian silversmith, would do.

The piece that garnered fourth prize was certainly the most unusual of the entries: a woman's silver evening gauntlet and matching earrings which, as Mr. Johnston says, "looks like something Cher would look good in." The gauntlet has articulated sections for wrist flexibility, and hooks over the middle finger with a silver chain. James Arlen Gillaspie of Northern Arizona State University crafted the piece using medieval armoring techniques. While the competition was in progress, he flew to London to repair armor for the British Museum.

Fifth place went to a sensually interlocking "sugar and cream set for the boudoir," by Matthew Sterling Morrow of Texas Tech University.


The honorable mention pieces, winners of $100 cash prizes, display a wide range of invention. They include a goblet on whose handle are etched nudes inspired by Greek mythology; a whimsical, bulbous candy dish; flatware sets whose handles recall pea pods and flower petals; a sinuous centerpiece in the shape of a milkweed pod, and charmingly lopsided cream and sugar pitchers with inlaid nickel Xs and Os.

Before the winning pieces are returned to their owners, they will be admired by thousands of silver aficionados both in New York and in their host state of Idaho. (No plans have been made to display them in Baltimore, however.) The winning designs are now on display at the art museum in Boise, Idaho, and beginning in January, can be seen in Tiffany's Fifth Avenue store in New York.

The exposure, more than the prizes (which range from $100 to $750), takes top priority for the entrants. Silver companies watch such competitions carefully, and a number of their leading designers have been award-winners in Sterling Silversmiths Guild contests.

"We have found that the amount of money is not important to them," Mr. Johnston states. "It's winning, and getting the recognition. One teacher explained it in a wonderful way. He said, 'You can be a fair football player or basketball player on a campus and everybody knows you, but you can be the best silver designer, and nobody knows you. These kids are starved for recognition.' "