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The Pleasure and Value of Antique Solid Silver Flatware (Cutlery)

by Robin Silverman

The term flatware is used to describe knives, forks and spoons that most of us would call cutlery. The term cutlery should really only be used to describe knives. Flatware, of course, is used by all of us but because modern lifestyles often do not involve sitting down to formal dining many have a motley collection of stainless steel or silver-plated hand-me-downs chucked into a kitchen drawer. It is ugly in the extreme to see the bare nickel showing on the back of a spoon and with certain foods it will give a disgusting taste of metal. In the past in the best houses even the servants sat down to a proper meal using a full set of silver cutlery and serving dishes but these days it may be only on occasions such as Christmas that we suddenly realise that if the dining table is to look complete then, at the very least, a matching set of knives and forks would be nice.

There has, of late, been a resurgence of interest in formal dining with cookery programs hosted by celebrity chefs among some of the most popular television shows and dining room layouts and table settings featured in many of the glossy lifestyle magazines. With so much effort exerted in the production and presentation of fine food and such artistic flair lavished on the table settings one can easily understand why the hosts and hostesses of today are eager to acquire beautiful silver flatware to complete the picture.

So far I have mentioned knives, forks and spoons together but in antique silver the knives must be treated separately to the forks and spoons. The main reason for this is that knives are rarely to be found with silver flatware sets made much before the last couple of decades of the 19thCentury. Knives were and still are traditionally made by, and purchased from, cutlers; whilst spoons and forks were made by spoonmakers who were specialist silversmiths. The two industries were quite different. Another reason is that in the 18th and 19th Centuries the fashion for knives was to have ivory, bone or other naturally occurring substances for handles. There was no feeling that the knives needed to match the patterns of the silver spoons and forks. The knife manufacturing industry in Sheffield has met this challenge well by producing very good quality silver-handled knives to match virtually all the old silver patterns and these knives can be obtained from dealers who sell the old spoons and forks.

It must be said that anything you find new on the high street is mass-produced and machine-made; whereas all 19th Century and earlier silver flatware was hand-forged by craftsmen beating small red-hot ingots of silver with club hammers on anvils. The constant re-heating and sudden cooling (annealing) and the forging into shape gives the silver a high tensile strength that is surprising for what would otherwise be quite a soft metal. The good news is that we are not talking of a rare commodity here. There was a huge amount of solid-silver flatware produced in the 19th Century, hence the fantastic value compared with the factory prices of the new.

Your flatware speaks volumes about you to your guests. They not only look at it but handle it and feel the quality. Frankly, when one feels the real thing it is obvious and a joy to the touch. If you are one of those lucky few who are used to having silver in the home you will know that your knives, forks and spoons are the only pieces of silver that your guests will regularly handle. Easy as it is to pop out to your local department store and pick stainless steel or over-priced silver-plated or even silver flatware one may be overlooking the possibility of owning something far more beautiful, enduring and interesting and perhaps even items that will grow in value.

Taste differs widely and whilst there are a finite number of patterns in old silver flatware there is still something for everyone. The minimalists who seem to hold great sway these days are well served. Fortunately for them the most widely made patterns in the 19th Century were “Fiddle” and “Old English”. These very simple designs are perfect for today’s modern homes and it is possible to either collect individual pieces and make up your own set or purchase a composite, sometimes called “Harlequin”, set from a good dealer at extremely attractive prices, often at similar values to the price you would have to pay for a brand new plated or stainless set. For those with more exotic inclinations there are some wonderful designs to choose from. Often the more complicated patterns are heavier to the touch and the scarcer ones will have a higher value given the supply and demand problems. Bear in mind that the new plated or stainless set is virtually worthless from the moment you leave the shop, whereas antique silver sets will have everlasting intrinsic value. Furthermore if you purchase from a good dealer he will normally be prepared to up-grade your set at a later date for just a little extra if you decide to change your flatware style or quantity or quality.

I have mentioned the term “Harlequin” but this concept needs to be expanded as part of the whole treatise on patterns. It is difficult to be precise on the exact number of patterns available in antique English silver mainly because there are many variations on similar themes; but they are fairly easy to break down into types. The earliest pattern used for a complete set of flatware is called “Hanoverian” and was produced from the first quarter of the 18th Century. By 1770 the “Old English” pattern had been introduced and within a few years came the “Fiddle” pattern, although this was mostly produced in the 19th century and similarly the “Kings” pattern, a more decorative style completely. The outline shapes of “Old English”, “Fiddle” and “Kings” were used with an increasing variety of decorations through the 19th Century giving rise to a host of new pattern names. Many of these were created by a single firm of silversmiths called “Chawner & Co.” who produced their own pattern book, circa 1870, that has become the bible for old silver patterns produced in this country. There were many other spoonmakers producing high quality flatware throughout this period all of whom made the standard styles. Because of this universal fashion it is possible to make a charming set of silver flatware from various makers and dates that will look right together on the table.

I should point out that nearly every spoon and fork that was made was inscribed with the owner’s family crest or monogram. If you purchase from a dealer and you want to create more uniformity he will be able to arrange the removal of the inscriptions. The results are usually excellent on the plainer sets and will leave the silver looking as shiny as new. If you are more of a purist then you won’t mind the inscriptions and you will be able to retain the beautiful original patina that has been gained over the hundred and fifty years or so of constant use.

It is possible, of course, to find sets that have come from one household. All the same date and maker and that have the same crest or monogram (crests more desirable). Sets like these will often have additional serving pieces and they are going to be much more expensive. They will not compare favourably in price with your modern stainless steel but for the discerning buyer with a larger bank balance they still offer excellent value because these sets are rare and hold their price well on the open market.

In the plastic 21st Century it is surely good to know that the craftsmanship and quality of a fine set of flatware, that is so durable that if well looked after will literally last forever, is available at an affordable price – probably less than a computer that might last a couple of years.