ANTIQUES, FINE & DECORATIVE ART…..
By Sarah McCullom
First let’s talk a little about silver – at least the type we would set our table with.There are various types of silver:coin silver, sterling silver, and silver plate.Coin silver is pretty much what it sounds like, silver made of silver coins that have been melted to make silver implements.Spoons are the most common.This silver has about 900 parts silver out of 1000.It is typically the oldest, as it was made when silver bullion was not available.There is quite a bit of American coin silver made in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Much of it was marked with the maker’s name.Sterling is 925 parts out of 1000.This has been the standard since about 1860.Silver plate is metal ware that has been covered in a thin sheet of silver.Today that is done by a process called electro plate.The earliest silver plate is called Sheffield Plate, where copper was placed between two thin sheets of sterling silver, similar to a sandwich. When Sheffield Plate was developed, more people could afford silver, since a lot of the value of silver is based on how much silver is in the piece.It became even more affordable once electro plate was developed.
How can you tell if what you have is sterling or silver plate?First, turn the piece over to see if it is marked EP or EPNS.Those indicate that the piece is electro plate or electro plate nickel silver.The absence of these marks does not necessarily mean that it is sterling. Look further to see if it says sterling. Sterling silver made in the United States almost always has that mark.There also may be a mark that will indicate the maker.If you see other hallmarks, it could be English sterling. The English have a very specific system for marking their sterling that usually indicates date, location made, and even the maker by means of individual hallmarks.English silver will have 4 to 5 of these marks.Lastly look closely at the piece to see if there are worn spots where the silver has rubbed off.This also means that it is silver plate.
Today the prices of silver flatware and hollowware vary quite a bit from firm to firm, but in general they have not risen much in the past few decades.In regard to flatware, the value will depend on the popularity of the pattern.Many of the firms that produced sterling flatware are in financial difficulty. This is the result of many factors.Some years ago most of the manufacturers changed their distribution patterns, and in addition to jewelry and department store distribution, they began selling to deep discounters.The jewelry stores were the first to feel the pinch.Most jewelry stores were relatively small operations and needed a keystone markup in order to survive.When this was no longer possible because of the deep discounters, most jewelry stores decided to no longer handle sterling flatware.Most recently, many of the department stores have also dropped the sterling lines made by U.S manufacturers, as they could not get the profit mark.
In addition there has been a general decline in the demand for sterling flatware. It is no longer a situation where the local jeweler offers each girl in the graduating high school class a teaspoon of her choice and thus educates the girls in the desirability of owning her own set of sterling flatware.The move toward more informal entertaining, coupled with today’s busy lifestyles means that most young couples do not want to spend their time polishing silver.Instead, high grade stainless steel has an appeal for many young couples, and most prefer to buy and register these patterns at stores such as Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel.
Recently, the price of silver by the ounce has seen resurgence, so the price of sterling silver is rising slightly.This is because the value of silver is identified in two ways.The first is based on the amount of silver in the piece, which is why sterling is almost always of higher value than silver plate.The other is identified by the age, style, craftsmanship, maker of the piece, provenance, and the pieces desirability.
There is a lot more to learn about silver, but perhaps now you can go into your cabinet and dig out your grandmother’s silver and see if she had sterling or silver plate.But the best thing to do is to polish it up and use it and enjoy it.You will find that you not only enjoy the elegance of using it, but that if you do use it everyday you won’t have to polish it as much!