Holding a piece of sterling silver flatware in the palm of the hand is like holding a piece of moonlight. In fact, since ancient times, silver has been associated with the moon. Both capture the warm, full-spectrum light of the sun and reflect it back as a cool, lustrous gray. Silver knives, forks, and spoons, as well as silver tea services and serving utensils, almost seem to shimmer when set out upon a table. Yet for all its eye-catching properties, silver is comfortable with its largely utilitarian role in our domestic lives, offering a neutral backdrop for the feasts and fellowship that surround it.
Being a uniquely malleable and ductile metal—a single gram of the stuff can form a length of wire a mile long—silver was a chameleon when it came to style. Mid-18th-century rococo silver was as flamboyant as the courts of England’s George II and France’s Louis XV, with whom the style is associated. The Federal style popular during the founding years of the United States was classical and symmetrical—patriot and silversmith Paul Revere was this style’s greatest champion.
Victorian silver was heavily ornamented and the first silver to be created with the help of mass-production techniques, while Art Nouveau silver rebelled against the Industrial Revolution, focusing instead on natural motifs and flowing, asymmetrical curves. Arts and Crafts continued this aesthetic, although the ornamentation was toned down. And by the time Art Deco rose to prominence in the first half of the 20th century, silver objects followed suit.
Throughout these periods, silversmiths produced candlesticks and candelabra, hollowware ranging from bowls to goblets to tureens, teapots and tankards, snuff boxes and cigarette cases, jewelry and pocket watches, and, above all, flatware.
Sterling silver flatware was first produced in Sheffield, England in the 1200s. Wealthy people carried their own knives and spoons with them because most inns did not provide such basic necessities for their guests. Forks did not appear until about a century later, first in Italy in about 1360, and then in France a couple of hundred years after that. The first record of a fork in England is not until 1611.
Indeed, the appearance of the fork, along with the discovery of major deposits of silver in Nevada in 1859 and the advent of electroplating in the 1870s, were catalysts for the explosion of flatware that occurred in the 19th century. Just a few hundred years before, forks had not even had a place at the table. But in the 1800s, Gorham, Tiffany & Co., Unger Bros., Oneida, and Shreve & Co. were just a few of the companies producing forks in dizzying styles and sizes.
Sometimes they were parts of patterns with pretty names like Buttercup, Daffodil, and Narcissus. Other patterns were given important sounding monikers like Canterbury, Lafayette,...
There were large dinner forks, smaller place forks, and luncheon or dessert forks that were smaller still. Salad forks were chiseled at the ends of their tines, while the tines of fish forks were slightly wider. Pie forks often featured an extra-wide outside tine to help the user cut into a slice without dropping any precious, tasty crumbs.
Cocktail forks had smaller tines and longer handles, whereas the wide, spoon-like terrapin forks were made just for eating turtles. And if you were eating strawberries or lobsters, although presumably not in the same course, there were forks for those foods, too.
The lists of knives and spoons were similarly encyclopedic, but let’s switch to the servicing pieces, which is where sterling silver flatware gets really interesting. Most of us are familiar with ladles, but silversmiths made specific ones for bullion, cream, gravy, oysters, or punch.
Wide serving forks were produced to bring bacon from dish to plate, while forks for delivering baked potatoes to guests often had just two tines, each of which pointed in an opposite direction so that the utensil resembled the letter V. And did you know that there were spoons for nuts, berries, bon bons, claret, and chocolate? Collectors of sterling silver flatware do.
In addition to being the place where all this flatware got its start, Sheffield was also home the first plating techniques, developed in the 1740s. By 1770, silversmiths were making Sheffield plate from sheets of sterling silver that were fused to a sheet of copper, creating a metal sandwich that could be hammered and formed like a regular piece of sterling but for a fraction of the cost.
Electroplating was introduced in the 1840s. Because it required less silver and could use cheap nickel as its base metal, electroplating essentially put the Sheffield silver industry out of business.
Whether they were using plate silver or sterling (the standard for sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent alloy), 19th-century artisans had a field day with the material, employing a variety of techniques to create not just flatware but hollowware and decorative objects, too.
Raising was the most basic construction method. In raising, a sheet of silver (sterling or plate) is hammered over a block or anvil from its center to the rim. Hammering actually strengthened the silver, but it had to be periodically heated and cooled (a process known as annealing) to prevent the metal from becoming brittle.
In some pieces, particularly those made during the Arts and Crafts era, hammer marks were left in the piece because the patterns were considered handsome—it was also an acknowledgement of the way in which the piece had been crafted. Some hammered pieces were planished, which involved going over the small hammer marks with a wide-headed hammer to create a smoother surface.
For silver objects with intricate shapes, melting silver and pouring it into a mold for casting was a favored, venerable technique. More modern was the practice of cutting sheet silver into shapes that could be formed into cylindrical vessels and other objects—seams were soldered and then hammered or polished smooth. Sheet techniques were introduced in the late 1800s, as was stamping, in which silver sheet was pressed into shapes between two dies.
With the exception of casting, most silver production methods lent themselves to a variety of decorative techniques. Engraving involved using a sharp tool to remove material from a piece of silver’s polished surface. Bright-cut engraving was a variation in which carves were made at an angle, producing facets in the metal that glittered and caught the light.
Chasing looked like engraving, but no material was actually removed (a chased tray may reveal evidence of the technique on the tray’s other side, whereas an engraved tray generally will not). In embossing or repoussé, reliefs and patterns were hammered into a piece from behind. Matting was similar to chasing, except that instead of flowers and scrollwork, the most typical pattern was tiny dots to give the surface a dull, matte finish.
Other decorative techniques included enameling, in which colorful metallic glazes were fired onto the surface of a piece to create patterns and scenes. Guilloché was a fine, lathe-generated pattern that was sometimes enameled but was more often left bare. Niello gave the cut-out designs on the surface of a piece of silver a handsome black background. And piercing was an incredibly time-consuming and expensive process until the 19th century, when mechanical piercing was introduced.