Before recorded human history, only 7 metals, the so-called ‘metals of antiquity’ were known to civilisation, of which silver was one. Its malleability and lustre made silver unsuitable as a building material but, along with its rarity, has meant it has always had a place as a material of status. After Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the mass import of the vast silver wealth of the New World, silver slowly became more popular in European society while maintaining its imagery of status and luxury. Today in the western world, luxury silversmiths, many of which were founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, still produce tableware and other silver items in the same traditions.
Making and Decorating Silver
The basic manufacturing techniques employed by silversmiths to form the shapes of silver pieces have changed very little over the years, with pieces either being ‘raised’ (beaten into shape) for simple forms or cast for more complex components like handles, feet and borders. Industrial Britain did, however, see the revolutions of Sheffield-plate, a fusion of silver and copper, and later silver-electroplating in Birmingham.
Part of the attraction of silver to collectors is that there has been a great variety of methods employed in its decoration. This can give otherwise ‘ordinary’ household objects a great variety of design. Decoration can be either integral, that is working the surface of the metal itself, or applied. Within these categories there are a plethora of specific techniques ranging from fine hand-engraving to industrial die-stamping. The addition of other materials such as enamel or semi-precious stones add another layer of detail.
Examples of plates and other integral parts of dinner-services such as serving dishes and matching cutlery appear on the market from as early as the beginning of the 18th century as the European aristocracy began to get their hands on what had previously been the preserve of royalty and the church. Engraved coats-of-arms quickly became popular on matching sets and family collections were expanded as new purchases became available to them. The popularisation of bespoke silverware also boosted the appeal of melting down older pieces of sterling silver, which had always been done, hence so few examples from earlier periods survive.
As silver tableware became more accessible between the 18th and 20th centuries, more and more pieces were promoted to satisfy growing demand for new pieces. These included a great variety of centrepieces such as epergnes, entrée dishes, new styles and types of flatware such as fish knifes and many others. The biggest revolutions were the introductions of tea, coffee and chocolate which required their own services including serving pots, tea caddies, sugar bowls, casters, jugs and the like. Many of these types have now become very collectible.
Styles of Silverware
As practical objects such as drinking vessels, boxes and flatware, the form of silver objects changed relatively little but they expressed contemporary styles as much as furniture, ceramics or architecture. Rococo, for example, was the style into which most a lot of the new tableware was introduced in the 18th century before neo-classical became the predominating style. Rococo saw a revival in the 19th century. These stylistic fashions can be seen in almost all types of silverware, and are especially apparent in particular features such as flatware handles. The turn of the 20th century saw somewhat of a departure from previous trends with arts and crafts marking a return to handmade silverware while art nouveau popularised enamelling and other forms of colourful decoration. Although pieces can usually be dated using their hallmarks, stylistic knowledge is essential in spotting fakes, which use transposed or forged marks, and in dating pieces where marks can no longer be seen.