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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chicago Silver

Chicago Silver

Paul Somerson's incredible reference on handwrought metalwork from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the ear… [read review or visit site]

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

An extensive reference guide to silver marks, hallmarks, trademarks and maker's marks found on antique and vintage … [read review or visit site]

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

This is a great reference site on silver, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can view silver items acc… [read review or visit site]

The Gilbert Collection

The Gilbert Collection

The late Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of European silver, gold, enamel, and other items is now housed at the Vic… [read review or visit site]

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

TheStieffCompany.com

TheStieffCompany.com

Scott Perkins is an enthusiastic evangelist for The Stieff Company, a significant Baltimore silversmith and maker o… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Most watched eBay auctions    

Beautiful English Antique 1913 Solid Silver & Guilloche Enamel Chatelaine MirrorBeautiful Gothic English Antique Victorian 1892 Solid Silver Calling Card CaseRare Imperial Russian Photo Frame 84 Silver Hallmark By Faberge Design!Beautiful Clean English Antique Georgian 1806 Solid Sterling Silver Vinaigrette109pc Wallace Grande Baroque Sterling Silver 8pc Dinner Place Setting For 12 Antique Benson Centre Seconds Chronograph Gents Solid Silver Pocket Watch Hm1927Beautiful Antique Victorian Silver Turquoise & Garnet Fly Insect Pendant (c5)Superb Rare Scottish Antique Georgian C1820 Solid Sterling Silver Chamber Stick Fab Rare English Antique 18th Cent Georgian 1793 Solid Silver Needle Case HolderHandsome Clean Large English Antique 8-day Goliath Railway Pocket Watch WorkingSuprb Very Rare Antique 1928 Solid Silver & Guilloche Enamel Cigarette Jewel BoxAntique Silver & Enamel Table Snuff Box - Austria Vienna 1860 Chinese Export Silver Dragon Tray (2) Signed For Lk (rare)Antique Russian Silver 84 Cigarette Case. Size: 4.5l X 3.25w. Weight: 219 GramsHuge Kirk Repousse Sterling Silver Flatware Set 75 Pieces Service For 12+ ExtrasFully Working Antique 1911 Solid Sterling Silver Full Hunter Pocket WatchBeautiful Old Antique Victorian Ornate Silver & Garnet Bird Swallow Brooch (c14)Edwardian Novelty Silver Humpty Dumpty Pin CushionSuperb Rare Antique 1903 Solid Sterling Silver & Irish Connemara Marble BookmarkStuart Devlin English Silver Gilt 'frog & Flowers' Egg C.1975 Victorian Novelty Silver Bulls Eye Lantern Sewing Etui, H W Dee, London, 1873Antique Russian Silver Enamel Cigarette Case With Cabacon Stone Thumb PieceWallace Rose Point Sterling Silver Flatware Set Of 32 Pieces Service For 8Antique Imperial Russian Silver 84 Silber Gold 24k Faberge Cup Shot Glass Fine Quality Early Hallmarked Silver Box Set With Agates & Red Stones -very Rare55p Old Wallace Rose Point Sterling Silver Flatware Set Servers Large Heavy RareVictorian Hm1886 Solid Silver Hinged Buckle Cuff Bangle Bracelet Great Quality Huge Towle Old Master Sterling Flatware Set 76 Pieces Service For 12+ Extras18thc London Sterling Silver Repousse Decorated Tankard 1731Chinese Export Silver Tea Cup & Saucer Tea Set Signed Russian Imperial Tea Glass Holder Silver 84 Enamel Moscu Grigoriy SbitnevRare Antique Russian 84 Silver Enamel Cigarette Case Ovchinnikov, NrEdwardian Silver Combined Double Sovereign & Vesta Case, S Blankensee, 1902Stunning Vintage Solid Silver Charm Bracelet & 24 Rare Silver Charms, 89.1gAntique Solid Silver Double Albert Chain & Spinning Fob Not Scrap 36.4gmSuperb Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Snuff Box, 1847, 55 G, F ClarkJapanese Sterling Tea Set Mixed Metal Tea Cup & Saucer 2-2Solid Silver Hallmarked Signed Yates & Co Liverpool Pocket Watch Not WorkingFine Heavy English Antique Georgian 1752 Solid Sterling Silver Salver Card TrayAntique Solid Silver Double Pocket Watch Albert Chain & Double Sided Fob, 1919Antique Georgian Pair Of Large Solid Silver Cauldron Salts Dhrh 159g London 1767Vintage Solid Sterling Silver Japanese Cigarette Case1913 / 38 Antique Solid Silver Clock By Blackensee & Sons Ltd 58pc Sterling Silver King Richard Towle Flatware Service Dinner Place Setting Solid Sterling Silver English Fusee Verge Pocket Watch 1840 Cleaned & WorkingFabulous Vintage Solid Silver Charm Bracelet & 21 Rare Silver Charms, 80.5gJoblot Vintage Solid Silver Spoons Labels Knife Rests For Resale Not Scrap 351gAntique Chased English London Sterling Silver Footed Sauce Boat Pre-1822Superb Antique Chinese Export Silver Bamboo Tea Saucer By Luen Wo Chinese Silver & Cloisonne Enamel PeacockSuperb Large English Antique 1903 Solid Sterling Silver Playing Card Box TroughSuperb Large 18" ~ Silver Plated ~ Gallery Tea / Drinks Tray ~ C1950 ~ 47 X 30cmA Job Lot Of 17 Various Boxes Of Vintage Silver Plated CutleryEdwardian Novelty Antique Silver Elephant Pin Cushion, A & J Zimmerman, 1905Large Antique German Gebruder Petersfeldt Rosenthal 800 Silver Pose CandlesticksRussian 84 Standard Silver Cloisonne Multicolor Enamel Egg Box Slip FittingAntique Russian Silver 875 Cigarette Case Cabachon Stone Tum Piece 160 GramsVictorian English Silver Perfume Bottle/phial By Sampson Mordan C.1881Antique Ruby Red Perfume Scent Bottle Silver Lid Circa 1880A Nicely Shaped Antique Sterling Silver Tea Caddy Birmingham 1916