For a simple, utilitarian object, the sterling silver tray is surprising tough to describe. In general, trays have opposing handles, except when they don’t, as in trays designed to hold a snuffer for a pair of candlesticks, or a legged tray shaped like the teapot that sits on top of it.

In the United States, the words “waiter” and “tray” go together like bread and butter, but in the U.K., a “waiter” is also a small salver, which is a tray that’s used exclusively to serve beverages and food to one’s guests. Salvers can be footed or flat, but their edges are usually raised so that one can pick the salver up when it’s sitting on a flat surface. After all, unlike many trays, salvers lack handles.

Then there’s the tazza, which can be considered a salver if it’s flat and sits on a round, center foot. But if the tazza is martini-glass shaped and known as a bon-bon tazza, then it’s not a salver, let alone a tray.

Confused? Not to worry: the words “tray” and “salver” are used almost interchangeably. Besides, in the end it’s the workmanship and artistry of these pieces that captivates sterling silver collectors.

Trays were produced in the Georgian style from the early 18th century to almost the middle of the 19th. English silver was a less-fussy antidote to French rococo, which was happening at the same time. In the Colonies, silversmiths like Paul Revere produced trays in the emerging Federal style, which often called for scalloped or lightly decorated borders surrounding plain interiors marked in their centers by the owner’s monogram.

During the Victorian Era, solid sterling-silver trays were less common than silver-plated ones, but by the late 1800s, the arrival of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements renewed interest in hand-wrought silver forms.

The engraving, chasing, and casting techniques lavished on Art Nouveau sterling silver trays drew their inspiration from nature—Art Nouveau artisans were particularly preoccupied...

Sterling silver trays produced during the Art Deco era of the 1920s and ’30s heralded a return to a machine-made look, although the style looked forward to modernism rather than back to rococo. These trays typically used engraving sparingly. For example, designers like E. Barnard & Sons of London chose to surround their circular tray surfaces by clean, octagonal borders.

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