Collecting Vintage Sterling Silver and Silverplate Tableware
For over 100 years, sterling silver flatware stood as the hallmark of upper middle class success. When new technologies of the Industrial Revolution as well as American discoveries of silver ore increased production and lowered costs, a growing upper middle class fell under the spell of silver's white luster. Until the mid 20th century, brides registered their favorite pattern and began collecting place settings, tea sets, trays, olive forks, cake servers, meat and fish servers, sugar cube tongs, and a vast array of tableware and flatware.
Different sized utensils had designated places beside plates. During a meal, a diner switched forks for every course. Salad forks, dinner forks, and dessert forks bracketed each plate. A variety of utensils were specifically designed for cheeses, vegetables, for lunch, and for the use of children.
Sterling vs Silverplate
Silver is a precious metal called argentum in Latin, specified as Ag on the Periodic Table of Elements. Soft and easy to work, silver needs the addition of another metal to make it useful. Sterling silver is an alloy containing 92.5% silver and 7.5% nickel or copper.
Sterling silver made in the US is marked with the word "sterling," or the number "925." British silver pieces display three coded marks: the first for city of production, the second a lion with a raised paw (called Lion Passant), then a single letter representing the year of production.
Silver plate was developed in the 1840s. A base metal is coated with a thin layer of silver. Silverplate is inexpensive and does not last as long as sterling.
Older, well used silverplate will often show wear especially on the ends of fork tines. Silver plate can be quite ornate and very pretty. It can be found in thrift stores or online for about $1.00 per utensil. Of course beautiful, unusual, or rare pieces will cost more. Some silverplate is of higher quality and has some heft to it.
Decorating magazines and some specialty shops offer mixed pattern place settings in silverplate. Mixing patterns can be a fun, eclectic way to set a table.
Occasionally silverplate is misrepresented online. Some sellers do not understand the difference. Look for sterling online from seller who offer close up pictures as well as the marker's mark on the back.
There are a few foreign companies that produce silverplate marked "sterling" or "925" and offer it online as sterling. The low prices should serve as a warning to avoid these fraudulent sellers.
usually lighter in weight
deeper color and luster
usually lighter in color
lasts for generations
lasts 20 years
marked Sterling or 925
can be melted down for value
no melt value
Collecting sterling for investment is not the same as collecting for your own satisfaction. Sterling silver is an expensive commodity even though the demand has fallen in the last 50 years. Collecting for investment depends on the vagaries of fashion. Value depends entirely on demand. Grandmother's silver may be ornate and beautiful but collectors today gravitate toward sleeker, more modern pieces.
Collecting sterling silver demands a lot of research. There is so much to learn!
The Value of Sterling Silver
Silver has been mined for thousands of years and used for coinage and ornamentation. Oddly enough, it was more valuable in the 1200s than it is today. Discoveries of ore in the Americas lowered its value and made silver more available. Mid 19th century discoveries in the US, like the famous Nevada Comstock Lode lowered the prices even more.
Occasional price hikes can make the value of silver spike. There have been times in the past when the value soared briefly. At such times, silver flatware, tableware, and jewelry were melted down. As of January 2017, the price of silver was about $16.83 per ounce, down from August 2016 when it was $20.00 per ounce.
If you are looking at the price of silver, learn if the piece is weighed in standard ounces or troy ounces. A troy ounce is 10% heavier than a standard ounce.
Collectors are generally interested in products made by well known, high quality manufacturers of fine tableware, such as Tiffany. Highly coveted patterns earn top dollar while lesser patterns are worth little more than their melt value. In general, American brands are not as hot as British, European, and Russian items.
Obviously, a dinner fork will not be as valuable as a particular serving piece. A large set would include many dinner forks, but only one specific serving piece (like a cold meat fork, or a fish server). And many people purchased place settings without buying all the extra available pieces.
Remember that value is a relative tern. To an antique silver collector, a fork worth $25.00 may be relatively worthless. To many people, a $25.00 fork seems quite expensive.
Inheriting Grandmother's Silver
If you find yourself with a box of grandmother's sterling, there are many options. You may decide to keep and use it. Sentimental value and the appreciation of tine tableware make this choice simple. However, you may want to identify each item and assess its value for you own information
1) Have it appraised. A jeweler or antique appraiser will have the resources and knowledge to identify and value your collection. However, a formal appraisal may be costly.
2) Researching vintage, or antique can be time consuming and difficult. But if you enjoy research here are a few tips:
- Look for the maker's mark on the back of the utensil. In addition to the word "sterling" or the number "925" you may see the name of the manufacturer. The Stieff silver pictured above (second from the left) was easily identified as a cold meat fork in the famous Rose pattern. The pattern changed slightly over the years. That may help lean when it was made.
- Casual information may help as well. Do you recall the silver being used in your grandmother's house? If so, when? Did she ever claim that the silver once belonged to her own mother? These are clues that can quickly help date an item.
- Online sites like Replacements and Kovel's display a vast collection of sterling silver. You can check these sites and locate your piece by finding the names of the manufacturer. These sites offer photographs that can be enlarged to view details. Replacement value can be learned there as well.
- If you check auction sites like ebay when looking for prices, check the sold price not the suggested price.
Silver tarnish is a chemical reaction creates black marks on silver. It is easily removed with a commercial silver polish. The best way to avoid tarnish is to used your silver every day!
Tarnish can be helpful if you are hunting through a pile of flatware at a rummage sale. Items that look awful will probably be silver.
Below are some pictures of a silverplate sugar bowl before and after polishing. It took about 5 minutes, if that long.
Some silverplate may appear to be tarnished when actually the dark gray is the base metal - the thin silver plate is worn off!
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Dolores Monet