British micro-engraver Graham Short is famous for creating detailed carvings that are so unbelievably tiny that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. On a never-ending quest to push his limits and create the tiniest engraving possible, Short has engraved specks of gold small enough to fit in the eye of a needle and even the edge of a razor blade. His secret – working between heartbeats.
To produce his tiny masterpieces, Graham works in complete silence, because even the slightest sound could produce vibrations that might ruin his work. He steadies his right arm by securing it with a strap attached to a piece of heavy machinery. His mobile is switched off, and he mostly works at night to avoid the vibrations of vehicles passing in the street. Starting at midnight, he works through the night until five or six in the morning, and continues for three to four nights in a row, until he gets too tired and his body clock needs readjustment.
As much as he tries to eliminate distractions, there is one vibration that Graham cannot silence – his own heartbeat. But he’s come up with a ingenius technique to work around that as well. Graham tapes a stethoscope to his chest and places the earpieces in his ears, keenly listening to his own heartbeat. With his carving tool in hand, he waits motionless, for as long as 20 minutes, until his heart rate is at its lowest. Then, listening intently, he only makes a carving at his stillest moments – in between heartbeats.
“I can do something that no one else on a planet of 7 billion people can,” Graham said, speaking to Quartz. That’s probably true, and it helps that he has always been a fit and healthy man thanks to his love of swimming. He was the European butterfly champion in his age group at age 55, and now, at age 70, he still swims three hours a day to keep his heart rate low. Most importantly, he doesn’t drink coffee on work days.
As fit as he is, age has finally caught up with Graham – these days he has to consume potassium, magnesium, and beta-blocker pills to get his heart rate to drop as low as 20 beats per minute. To keep his eyes in top shape and hold the muscles in place, he gets botox injections every few weeks. But the most important aspect of his work is meditative, and he’s only gotten better at that with time.
One of Graham’s most remarkable masterpieces is his engraving of the words ‘Nothing is Impossible’ on the edge of a razor blade, 1/100th of a millimeter wide, which was later sold to a collector for 50,000 euros. It took him a total of 180 tries to get it right, and when he finally did, he was beside himself with joy. “I was absolutely thrilled,” he said, speaking to DW TV. “When I finished it, I couldn’t believe it, because I’d struggled for so long to do it. And I knew that it was probably the smallest engraving in the world. I can’t go any smaller, and I wouldn’t think anybody else can.”
Graham also carved out a one-millimeter image of the Hindu Goddess Durga, responding to a challenge by an Indian artist who had previously made a one-inch carving. His most recent work, and his favorite by far, is a microscopic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, carved on a speck of gold stuffed in the eye of a needle, made to commemorate her 90th birthday on April 21. His greatest dream, however, was to engrave the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a nail, and that took him 40 years to complete.
Of course, Graham has made his share of frustrating mistakes. He once forgot to add the letter ‘I’ in a miniscule tribute to NASA, and noticed the error only after the piece was complete. He lost three months of work because of that mistake, and had no choice but to start again. More than once he has dropped completed works as he removed them from the microscope, and was unable to pick them out of this studio carpet. But these mistakes are far and few, and for the most part, Graham is a master at working at a slow, unhurried pace, a technique that greatly improves the accuracy of his craft.
Interestingly, Graham considers himself an extrovert and craves the recognition that is rightfully his. “I want people to realize, more than anything, how difficult this is,” he said. He’s always on the lookout for the next tiny canvas to showcase his skills on – engraving quotes and names of famous people on pen nibs, pinheads, the casing of a bullet, the center point of a pocket watch, or even the pointy end of a paperclip. But size isn’t the point – Graham wants to go smaller and smaller mainly because that would make it impossible for anyone to best him. “They won’t be able to do it. They won’t be able to go these lengths. I don’t blame them.”
“They think I’m an eccentric, I think,” he laughed. “But it is an obsession. Totally obsessed with it now. Can’t stop it.”
Photos: Graham Short