Silver is a lustrous white precious metal with a large number of industrial and commercial uses, along with its value as currency in the form of coins and investment bars. It is used for its high levels of electrical and thermal conductivity, and its high intrinsic value and appearance makes it a popular material for high-end jewellery, tableware and decorative objects.
Items of silverware are domestic objects made from silver, and can include cutlery, plates, trays, teapots, tankards and candlesticks. Silver is also used to produce items such as watches, clocks, coins and medals.
Antique silverware can be identified by a series of hallmarks that appear on each piece; the ‘sterling’ mark which guarantees the purity of the silver, the ‘town’ mark, which denotes the location of the assay office that assessed the silver, the date mark (in the form of a letter) and the maker's mark of the particular silversmith. There may also be a ‘duty paid’ mark in the form of a sovereign’s head on pieces made between 1784 and 1890.
Silver is a regularly traded commodity, and can be used as a hedge against inflation, deflation or currency devaluation. It can be purchased in bullion bars, coins and rounds, which are coins with no value as legal tender. The value of silver is often linked to that of gold, although it can fluctuate far more often. Gold is traditionally valued at around 15 – 16 times the price of silver.
Collecting silverware is one of the most popular areas of antique collecting. Some collectors focus on a particular area such as cutlery, trays or tea services, whereas others look for items from a specific period like the 19th century or a particular style such as Art Deco or Art Nouveau (both of which used silver extensively in their designs). Collecting work by a particular manufacturer is also a popular method, and collectors may look for work by companies such as Liberty & Co or individual silversmiths like Paul de Lamerie or Paul Storr.
The earliest silver mines are recorded in the region of Anatolia around 4,000 B.C, serving the centres of silver craftsmanship in Asia Minor and the Greek Islands, along with areas of mainland Greece dominated by the Mycenaean culture. Silver mining flourished in areas such as modern Armenia until the collapse of the Minoan civilisation in 1600 B.C and the decline of the Mycenaean culture in around 1200 B.C.
As the Greek culture began to flourish, silver mining became focused around the mines of Laurium near Athens; historical writings and physical evidence from old mine dumps indicate these mines produced around 1 million troy ounces per year at the height of production between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C. During this time silver was used to make jewellery and coins, along with bowls, cups, plates and drinking utensils. Some were ceremonial, whilst others were for domestic use in wealthy homes.
The Roman Empire found their own source of silver in the mines of Spain, and Spanish silver came to dominate the market for several hundred years. The Romans produced a huge number of items using silver including coins, a wide variety of cutlery such as spoons and lobster forks, surgical instruments, decorative plates and bowls, jewellery and vases.
They also used it for its medicinal properties, and although the use of silver as means of preventing infection was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire it was rediscovered during the Middle Ages, when it was used to disinfect water, treat burns and wounds and even preserve food.
In 1300, King Edward I ordered that all silver articles must meet the Sterling silver standard (92.5% pure silver), and should be assayed by 'guardians of the craft', who would then mark the item with a stamp. From then until 1477 a leopard's head stamp was used as a standard mark throughout the realm. In 1478 under Edward IV, a statute added date letters and a leopard's head with a crown to indicate that the piece had been assayed in London. In 1544 the lion passant guardant (head turned left) crowned was added to signify the sterling standard. From 1550 to 1821 the lion passant guardant was uncrowned, and from 1821 to the present time the standard mark is a lion passant (head facing forward).
During the reign of Charles II the demand for silver was so high that a large number of coins were melted down. An attempt to prevent this practice was introduced in 1697, when the silver standard was raised to 95.8% (known as the Britannia standard) and marked with a lion’s head erased and the figure of Britannia. This level proved to be too soft for many items and the lower sterling level was re-introduced in 1720, but some high-value items still carry the Britannia mark and today items of silverware can be accurately dated by the combination of these various hallmarks.
Types and manufacturers
Main article: list of types of silverware
Main article: list of silverware manufacturers
Main article: list of silverware trade terms
The world’s most expensive silverware
The most expensive single piece of silver ever sold at auction is a Louis XV soup tureen made in 1733 by the French silversmith Thomas Germain. The tureen sold at a New York Sotheby’s auction in 1996 for a world record price of $10,287,500.
Other notable items of silverware
Main article: list of other notable items of silverware
Famous silverware collections and collectors
Main article: list of famous silverware collections
Main article: list of famous silverware collectors
Main article: list of silverware dealers
Silverware clubs and societies
Main article: list of silverware collectors clubs and societies
Main article: list of silverware dealers clubs and societies
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