Silvery elegance

From silver flatware to silver tinsel, this flinty, shiny color personifies elegance as much as does gold. Why? They’re both beautiful. Silver and gold are equally praised metals, sacred in various religious ceremonies. But silver flatware pulls ahead for one simple reason … it’s less expensive. That is also the basis on which sterling flatware has endured over centuries, to earn an admirable reputation in antiquities. Silver’s workability and abundant resources have made it a popular metal in many areas of life.

While the specific term has become synonymous with just about any tableware, in the good ol’ days, it meant you exerted special effort to create an atmosphere of elegance and grace, with a “table fit for a king.” Silver flatware gleamed in its star position on party and dining tables, helping create the sparkle in any event.

Have a formal festivity planned but have no family heirloom silver? That’s OK. With a few tips for purchasing this very collectible commodity, you’ll soon create new memories, serving the special people in your life with the style and grace of silver flatware.

Whether you’re in the market for a full set of vintage or antique silver, or on a quest of one elusive sterling piece to complete your heirloom serving set, or simply seeking a unique holiday gift, put the shine back in entertaining with silver flatware to festoon your table and provide shimmering tradition.

As is suggested with most antiques, “Always buy quality,” recommends Mark Moran, author of Warman’s Sterling Silver Flatware Value & Identification Guide. “And always buy the best piece that you can afford.” Through 18,000 listings and 1,200 photos, Moran shares much of the information you need to arm yourself, prior to peering into your first antiques shop. The values listed will help guide you to the style you like, at a price that won’t burden your budget.

Buying silver flatware for the first time is a perfect example of why you should know your dealer, rather than simply strolling the aisles of an antiques mall, unaware of the many quantifying facets of sterling flatware. So many pieces, even gleaming sets in exquisite wooden chests, are unidentified. How can you possibly know if the price is right? It isn’t enough, for instance, to know the name of a pattern. Let’s take the popular Chantilly pattern. Its “graceful border, plain center, and fleur-de-lis tip,” as described by, also could depict the similar, yet slightly more ornate design of the Birks Silver pattern of the same name. You say all you need is a Chantilly tablespoon to complete your set? According to Warman’s guide, you will pay approximately $90 for Birks and only $75 in the Gorham version.

Confusion can reign as well when you reach for those unidentified antique pieces offered for sale. How can you know the fair market value of something tagged as French silver, circa 1885 with no other identifying information? Taking the description to your knowledgeable dealer may help. Scanning Warman’s guide can help, too, as you select to seek out Gorham’s Cambridge pattern of 1899. You can be fairly certain that the 39 boxed pieces you found at the Brass Armadillo in Phoenix for $1,065, is about half the cost if the pieces were purchased individually.

Need a host/hostess gift? If you had visit Dave McPheeters, owner of Zac’s Attic in San Diego, you might be steered you to a handsome, Victorian, twisted-handle butter-master knife, and advised to pair it with some yummy cheeses. The unique knife design is rare in sterling, but you can pick one up even more reasonably priced in silver plate.

“Solo pieces make wonderful and affordable gifts,” says McPheeters. For modern use, a lovely bonbon/nut spoon in the Grande Baroque pattern by Wallace, adds subtle style for serving steamed vegetables; or an 1895 Old Colonial (Towle) dessert/pie server is splendid for quiche and quesadillas. “And,” says McPheeters, “don’t be intimated by silver – use it, take pride in it.”

Often locating a specific pattern or piece can be like a treasure hunt – exciting, frustrating and when successful, immensely gratifying. With online resources, combined with accessible experts, you may easily find Repoussé (1828) by Kirk Stieff Silver, Damask Rose by Oneida (1946) or Georg Jensen’s Acorn (1915). However, among silversmiths, Tiffany is still king and its antique pieces prove to be some of your toughest hunting. Even the venerable reports a long list of active searches for the expensive, apropos, but elusive Holly and Mistletoe pattern by Tiffany. Have your heart set on finding at least one piece? recently offered a questionable lemon fork in the 1800s pattern for $157.50.

Displaying individual, unique pieces of silver flatware with other antiques and collectibles makes a warm and elegant décor. Fortunately, antique flatware offers a variety of distinctively unusual pieces. In the Victorian era, says Moran, they had an obscure utensil for everything. “You might have an ice cream fork. You might also have an oyster or cocktail fork, which is not to be confused with a pickle fork. And a pickle fork would never be confused with a lemon fork.” Chipped beef, cold meats and fish all merited their own, unique fork. Thank goodness for modern streamlining. We can bring them back … but let’s just look at them.

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