When it comes to antique sterling silver flatware, age is not everything. For example, much of the flatware from the Victorian and Edwardian eras were mass-produced. For this reason, knives, forks, spoons, and serving utensils from these periods tend to be less collectible than handmade pieces, even those from more recent times.
A piece of flatware’s pattern and maker are generally more important than its age. Some patterns were meant to mimic the styles of earlier eras or places—Louis XIV-inspired patterns, evoking the opulent grandeur of 17th- and 18th-century France, are particularly common.
Other patterns are specific to a company. The 19th-century silversmith Wm. A. Rogers was known for his Elberon pattern, whose decorative edges extended all the way from the end of the handle to the base of the working part of the utensil itself. To prevent competitors from copying their patterns, many silversmiths actually patented their patterns in an attempt to make them immediately identifiable with their companies.
Most companies produced multiple patterns at a time, each with a descriptive or important-sounding name—from Buttercup, Daffodil, and Narcissus to Canterbury, Lafayette, and Duke of York. These patterns were often made continuously for decades, so the name of a maker and a pattern is not necessarily the best way to date a piece. To further muddle matters, companies such as American silver giant Reed & Barton made the same patterns in both silver plate and sterling silver, which, again, makes dating a particular piece of flatware difficult.
For collectors, the functionality of a piece of flatware is sometimes the most important consideration, especially if that functionality is archaic or obsolete. Serving pieces were the most specialized. Aspic slicers were designed exclusively for calves-foot jelly, cucumber and tomato-slice servers resembled tiny slotted hand mirrors, spinach forks had three wide-spaced tines to spear mounds of boiled spinach, and leaf-shaped ice cream ladles were meant to be used with a matching, dull knife—little wonder this combo was replaced by the ice cream scoop.
Sometimes the shapes of serving utensils didn’t tell you much about their use. A 19th-century sardine fork might reasonably be mistaken for a miniature lawn rake, while the cake servers from that era often look like hair combs. In other cases, the functionality of the serving utensil is clear, but the preparation of the food for which it was designed has fallen out of fashion—butter picks with fork handles and drill-bit-like ends do a fine job of stabbing chilled butter balls, but who eats butter like that anymore?
Aesthetics were the other major factor. Silversmiths such as Gorham, Georg Jensen, Tiffany & Co., Unger Bros., Oneida, and Shreve & Co. combined original designs with ones pulled from history, from the aforementioned Louis XIV to Art Nouveau...
For customers and collectors alike, settling on a pattern that is pleasing to look at is extremely important because with a complete silver service, you’ll be looking at that pattern a lot. A Gorham Chantilly service for 12, for example, may include two types of forks, three types of knives and spoons, and another half dozen serving utensils, for a total of 102 pieces. That’s a lot of Chantilly, so make sure you like it before you decide to bring it into your home.