|Hand-etched lines provide a textural background for these grapevine-covered goblets and chalice.|
Caring for Silver
Tips from Davis Tillman
Like many Southerners, antiques dealer Davis Tillman, of Tillman’s Antiques in Hot Springs, grew up polishing silver serving pieces before any important occasion. “It’s an important part of our Southern heritage,” he says. “And now it’s seeing a real resurgence as baby boomers have more time to entertain and are finishing or establishing collections for their own children.” The selection of silver in Tillman’s own store is as diverse as the history of the art form itself.
Lush and reflective, silver is one of the most versatile of metals: it can be hammered into sheets so thin, it would take 100,000 of them to make a stack an inch high, or it can be drawn into a wire even finer than a human hair. In fact, the silversmith was historically one of the most skilled artisans, and a master smith would select the most talented of his apprentices to take on the trade, while the less gifted became blacksmiths.
Tillman cautions collectors, however, to remember that all silver is not sterling. The word sterling has been used to denote high-quality silver since the 1200s, and was standardized to 925 parts pure silver out of 1,000. Sterling will be marked “925” or ‘sterling.” If a piece is British, it will be marked with a hallmark indicating its region of origin: the passant lion on three legs for England, the rampant lion on two legs for Scotland, or the crowned harp for Ireland.
Other silver blends include Britannia silver, which is 958 parts silver and marked with the female figure of Britannia, and coin silver, which is standardized as 825 parts silver, but has varied widely in centuries past, because it was literally the silver used in currency. “Many coin silver pieces were simply seen as a way to conserve your wealth in the absence of reliable banking,’ says Tillman. ‘You could take a bag of coins to the silversmith, and he would hammer them into either flatware or hollowware.”
In 1742 a new method of silver production called Sheffield plate was developed, making silver accessible to the merchant class, rather than just the nobility. Sheffield plate pieces are made from a sheet of sterling silver fused to a sheet of copper, sometimes with another silver sheet fused on the inside, like a sandwich. However, in 1840, thanks to the advent of the Industrial Revolution and electricity, the Elkington Company developed the technique of electro-plating, in which silver is deposited onto a base metal.
Electroplating made silver immensely popular and available to the growing Victorian middle classes. ‘It was really a challenge to the silversmiths to see just how much they could do with this new, modern process,” says Tillman. Some early pieces are marked with pseudo-hallmarks, but in 1896, legislation called for all new pieces to be marked “EPNS,” for electro-plated nickel silver. ‘In the latter part of the 19th century, the demand for silver wares increased significantly due to two factors: the discovery of large deposits in the West, which reduced the price of silver, and the increased wages of the average worker. At the height of its popularity, silver plate was crafted into as many as 20 pieces for a single table setting, along with individual candlesticks, spoon rests, place card holders and more.
Most silver is decorated with one or a combination of three techniques. Hand-chasing is created by hammering the front surface of a silver piece; repoussé is a technique of embossing an object from the back; and engraving is a process of cutting shallow lines into the silver. Some objects utilize all three techniques.
Caring for objects with such rich history is relatively simple, as silver, especially sterling, grows only more beautiful in passing years. Tillman encourages collectors to polish silver by hand with a light cream or paste, and cautions them against using dips, which can remove the detail from embellishments, detergents, or any scouring pads which can scratch the surface. To keep silver from tarnishing, he recommends storing it in a closed cabinet with a block of camphor, available at any drug store, or in bags made of or chests lined in Pacific cloth, which is treated with a similar compound. “Of course, the more you enjoy your silver in everyday use, the less it will tarnish,” he adds.