Byzantine silver lampstands
Byzantine silver lampstands

Pure silver is generally too soft for producing functional objects; so silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength while preserving the ductility and appearance of the precious metal. Other metals are sometimes used instead of the copper. The standard alloy, sterling silver, is 92.5% silver. This standard has been used since at least the 12th century, although the purity of silver was probably regulated for centuries before that.

Silver was rare in the Middle Ages in Europe, being restricted mainly to items for Church use. However, the Spanish conquest of South America brought large quantities of silver to Europe from about 1550. Silver coins, spoons and silver-edged wooden drinking vessels quickly became common. By the early 1600s, not only table silver but sliver-mounted furniture and silver lighting fixtures became common.

The Chinese were reluctant to disturb the Earth’s spirits by mining and removing precious metals but used silver and gold when they were available through trade with the West. This occurred during the Tang dynasty and continuously from about 1600. The Chinese used silver for cups, bowls and dishes.

During the English Civil War, huge amounts of silver were melted down for bullion.  Moreover, the Puritans melted down a great deal of Church silver because they disapproved of such ostentatious displays. When Charles 11 returned to the throne from exile in France, he brought with him the Baroque taste for luxury and display. The new aristocracy bought so much silverware that there was a serious shortage of bullion for coinage. 

In 1700, the Britannia standard was introduced, in place of the sterling standard, to discourage the melting down of coins to make plate silver. This raised the purity of silver plate from 92.5% to 95.8%. One result was that silver was too soft for elaborate decoration and more simple “Queen Anne” lines took hold. 

In 1720, the sterling standard was reintroduced (albeit with an extra duty) and, by the 1730s, the French Rococo style had become dominant in British silverware. In the 1760s, fashion again swung in the opposite direction, from the frivolous, unrestrained Rococo to the formal, structured Neo-Classical. 

The search for cheaper substitutes for silver led to the invention by Thomas Boulsover of Sheffield Plate in 1743. This was made by fusing a sheet of sterling silver to a sheet of copper in a furnace. The resulting metal was rolled or hammered into a sheet for making into the required items. From 1770, “double sandwich” Sheffield plate was manufactured with silver on both sides of the copper. (A piece stamped “Sheffield Plate” will not, in fact, be Sheffield Plate but electroplated silver made in Sheffield.)

There were problems associated with old Sheffield plate. Visible copper edges had to be concealed by applying plated wire. Beaded and gadrooned borders, which became fashionable by the 1780s, were stamped out in thin sheet silver, these strips were filled with a solder of tin and lead to add strength and a tiny flange of silver was folded over and soldered onto the underside of the piece.

And Sheffield plate was difficult to engrave without revealing the copper beneath the silver skin. Up till about 1810, silver or more heavily-plated copper cartouches were soldered into cut-out sections. After 1810, a thin plate of pure silver was heated and then burnished onto the plated object and hammered until it was perfectly flat. This plate could be engraved without exposing the copper base.

Electroplating was used from about 1840 and almost completely replaced Sheffield Plate by the early 1850s. In electroplating, a thin layer of pure silver is deposited on a base metal. The resultant object has the appearance of pure silver, which is a harsher white than sterling silver. The base metal was originally copper but this was replaced by nickel.

The cost savings were enormous. Items could be cast or spun in the base-metal and then assembled or engraved and the silver deposit would cover any signs of manufacture, such as solder or joins. Components could be made from different metals, exploiting the special qualities of each metal.

Electroplated silver usually has a quality mark such as “A1” or “EPNS” (Electro-Plated Nickel Silver) but electroplated silver is not generally regarded as collectable.

Did you know?

Until the mid-19th century, old silver was usually melted down to make more modern pieces or for bullion. As a result, relatively little old silverware survives. 

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