Do you have family treasures tucked away that you save for the “very best” occasions like holidays, family reunions, or special events? It’s certain that somewhere you have some prized heirlooms that haven’t seen the light of day in a long time. What are you waiting for? We can’t take them with us when we leave this world. If your immediate family isn’t deserving of the “very best,” then who is?
Go retrieve that treasure from the attic, basement, closet, garage, storage unit, safe deposit box, or whichever “safe” place you’ve stashed it. Is it that lovely sterling sugar spoon your mother’s best friend gave you as a wedding gift 15 years ago? Do you use sugar? Then please put the spoon in the sugar bowl. Where is that lovely vintage silver pitcher you found and bought in a cute boutique while you were on vacation? Can you put iced tea in it? No? Maybe it has a few dark spots or a little discoloration. It still will look nice holding a bouquet of peonies for Mother’s Day.
Experts in antique and vintage home decor tell us that silver is among the most re-sold of all family heirlooms — offered at bargain prices at estate sales, consignment stores and even junk shops. Often it’s been so neglected it looks like a lump of coal. So was it “saved for the best?” It would seem the previous owner didn’t think many occasions were the “best.” Of course we’re all busy people. Often when that “best” occasion rolls around, there simply isn’t enough time to retrieve a special piece from storage and make it presentable for use.
Well-tended silver pieces glow with a seemingly inner light. Placed on a sideboard, at the dinner table, adorning a mantle or a side table, they are timeless and elegant, having symbolized great value and status for thousands of years — until they go into storage. If you don’t treasure them, why should anyone else? By using your beautiful silver you are making it worth more than just its monetary value and honoring the unique family story that brought it into your life in the first place. Memories are the essential, invaluable connection between your silver and those you hope will cherish it as much as you do.
Beautiful and useful, silverware comes in many forms: flatware, tea and coffee services, butter dishes, cake pedestals, trays, vases, pitchers, tureens, serving pieces and many other fanciful items. Sterling silver is widely assumed to be the most valuable of silver. It is the premium variety of silverware, crafted from 925 parts silver to 75 parts alloy such as nickel or copper for durability. Genuine sterling is always marked as such. Any sterling silver made in the USA after approximately the 1850s has a sterling mark that may say “Sterling,” or .925. Some may even be marked .950, according to Alan Goodman of Goodman Interiors in Gloucester. About 95 percent of sterling silver carries a percentage mark, and most, but not all, carry a maker’s mark, since some historically significant sterling has come from other countries. British sterling carries multiple stamped hallmarks identifying the company, the location and date of manufacture. Other countries may not require these precise markings. A professional can test to confirm if a piece is real sterling silver. Sterling always retains its intrinsic silver value, and usually holds value as tableware too. It will last forever if used and properly cared for.
Silverplate features layers of silver bonded over another metal, often copper or brass. It is most often pricier than stainless steel, and has the bright, shiny finish of silver, though it is usually lighter in weight than sterling. The first patent for silver plating was issued in 1840. By the 1850s, a number of metal craftsmen had shifted their operations to the manufacturing of silver-plated wares in various forms. Quadruple silverplate, often called “hotel silver,” according to Goodman, was some of the highest quality silverware made during the later part of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t necessarily “plated” four times, but simply was coated with four times as much pure silver as any other decorative item. Within the silver manufacturing industry, items marked “Standard” silverplate indicated that two troy ounces (units of measuring precious metals) of pure silver were used to electroplate 144 teaspoons, but quadruple silverplate used eight troy ounces to plate the same 144 spoons. Triple silverplate items contain three times as much pure silver as “standard” and one-quarter less than quadruple silverplate items.
Although sterling silver is generally considered to be more valuable than silverplate, Lisa Goodman, also of Goodman’s Interiors, cautions against making such hasty assumptions. A common misconception is that silverplate is an inferior product. While it will never have the same silver content as sterling, very high-quality silverplate was made by some noteworthy manufacturers. Many people don’t realize that Tiffany & Company made silver-plated items. Since the change from crafting wares of pewter (the “poor man’s” silver) to electroplated silver occurred at the height of the Victorian period, the pieces made in the new ware were always more elaborate in design. Not only were the silver-plated pieces ornamented with Victorian details, but they were often embellished with florid engraved decoration — details which are no longer used. The value of a piece is measured by more than just its silver content, Ms. Goodman advised. “Mom’s silver-plated platter from the 1950s has value if it’s beautiful and well cared for,” she said. “Shape, age, history, construction, artistic detailing and overall condition increase the value of any piece,” she said, “even if some of the silver is gone.”
Patina and Polish
Perhaps it’s because new items are so easy to acquire that we have become used to them looking in “mint condition,” untouched and never used. Many people are reluctant to use their silver because it might lose that blinding mirror shine. However, signs of use are not a catastrophe. Losing the mirror shine is a good thing. Silver is soft, and once used and cared for, it acquires tiny surface marks. Over time, these marks overlap and develop into patina. This is not imperfection, it is a desirable state. The people who really love silver, value patina. Nothing can duplicate that soft, subtle sheen. A lovingly used and tended piece with beautiful patina can look better than the same item that’s practically new, Ms. Goodman noted.
Of course dings and dents also happen relatively easily. When they do, it’s not the end of the world, just part of the story. Like this: “Hey, isn’t this the spoon Grandma banged against the table that time she got so mad at Uncle George? Do you remember that?”
Probably the number one reason people never use their silver is they don’t want to have to polish it. Silverware has unfairly acquired a reputation for requiring very high maintenance. The truth is that the more you use it, the less you need to polish. Silver is stable in pure air and water, but will tarnish in reaction to ozone, hydrogen sulphide and airborne sulphur. The good news is that regular use and handling is enough to prevent it. Gentle washing with soap and water, dusting and wiping is sufficient to keep most silver in fine form. Some pieces can even be cleaned in the dishwasher. The guidelines for dishwasher cleaning are these: only solid flatware (no items with glue joins, or weighted/reinforced items like candleholders), don’t let the silver touch any other metal like stainless steel, only use the normal or gentle cycle, and use dishwasher soap with no phosphates or lemon/citrus additives.
When the occasional polishing becomes necessary, take to heart the advice given to doctors — first, do no harm. Tarnish is not a layer of dirt above the surface of the silver. Rather, it is sulphur which has become chemically bonded into the top layer of silver. Countless people have destroyed works of art by rough polishing. Don’t join their number. Scouring the silver on the surface of a cherished piece in order to remove tarnish is much like sandpapering — extreme overkill. Aggressive polishing will remove the original glow of the piece as well as the patina which has accumulated during its careful use, thereby diminishing its value. The only way to remove the sulphur without removing the silver surface is gently to reverse the chemistry. Hand polishing is the method of care recommended by serious collectors. It’s generally best to stay with well-known silver care products featuring creams, pastes (more abrasive), or foam. Use polish as you would finger-paint in kindergarten: with your bare fingertips, rub it over the surface of the silver. Keep rubbing until tarnish fades, and use tap water or a damp cloth to remove the polish. Repeat the process as needed, using a Q-Tip to reach difficult areas and small spots. It’s perfectly reasonable to finish up with a gentle dishwashing liquid and lots of cool water, and light towel drying (blot, don’t rub). Keep in mind that it’s not necessary or even desirable to remove every bit of tarnish from a piece of silver. Especially when the piece has fluted or embossed surfaces, it’s expected that deep grooves will acquire a darker hue than raised areas. The resulting contrast should be left intact.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, damage happens — a broken hinge or handle, a bent candlestick, or a spot of corrosion. Experts caution against repairing or re-silvering an antique, as such interference may harm its appraisal. However, if you’re not planning to sell the cherished item, and wish to use it for its intended purpose in pristine form, an experienced silversmith or possibly even a jeweler, may be able to repair the damage or restore the silver. To find a qualified craftsman will require an extensive search and is likely to be a pricey endeavor.
Elevate the Everyday
When a piece is slightly damaged, or has acquired a little more “patina” than is strictly desirable for food service, Ms. Goodman recommends re-purposing. “Seeing copper shining through the silver doesn’t make that piece trash,” she said. “It still has value.” She once fashioned a teapot into a lamp. A pitcher can become a vase for daffodils. An urn makes a nice planter for an orchid. “Everything looks more elegant arranged on a silver tray,” Ms. Goodman added — like office supplies on a desk, or perfume bottles on a vanity table. A silver sugar bowl or cream pitcher can hold bath soaps, makeup brushes or jewelry. If you’re not serving mint juleps very regularly (and who is?), the cups look lovely in a grouping, each holding a single magnolia, camellia or rose bloom.
The silver treasures we’ve stored away for a special occasion were designed to be functional and useful. Every piece has a story. They were designed and created by craftsmen who were influenced by art, economics, history and politics. To foster an appreciation of their work, bring silver back to the table where it belongs. At its most basic, silverware is about food. We share meals with our loved ones every day. Across all cultures, offering food to family and friends is a caring act of great significance. Why not elevate the tone of this most basic domestic event. It doesn’t matter where we eat, whether in the dining room, at the kitchen table or on the breakfast bar, a beloved silver pitcher, candlesticks and some cherished flatware will make every meal a little more savory. Life is short, make it a celebration.