Today, I have the pleasure of sharing a guest post written by Nancy Stuckwisch of Silver Magpies. Nancy helps people find silver they love and can use (rather than just polish). Why buy new when there is so much beautiful silver already out there? You can read more about Nancy, her background, and her business at the end of the post.
Two words that often strike dread into the hearts of busy people. Sterling silver has unfairly acquired a reputation for being delicate and high maintenance.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Somewhere along the line, sterling has come to be viewed as old-fashioned and fussy. I suppose many of us have memories of the dreaded once-a-year cleaning before a major holiday.
I see the evidence of this all the time, as I run across blackened, neglected, and tarnished pieces.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If you take a fresh look at sterling, you may be surprised.
1. Why not use your silver every day? Put it in the dishwasher. Yes,the dishwasher. The great, and apparently hidden, secret about silver is that the more you use it, the less it needs polishing.
Mine gets used every day and it never gets polished. It has acquired a beautiful patina, that subtle graying of the silver’s surface, indicative of use and care. A mirror finish often means that a piece is new and/or unused. Or that you have sent it out to have all signs of love and use buffed away by a machine.
2. Did you inherit grandma’s silver, but you aren’t that wild about the pattern? If you don’t feel any sentimental connection, you can always trade it in. Silver comes in patterns from plain and simple to baroque. You don’t even need to stick to a single pattern.
I have a client who has enjoyed building a “set” composed of Georgian tablespoons, Mother of Pearl handle forks, and some superb deco knives from Shreve. It looks spectacular, and if ever there was a lull in conversation at her table (highly unlikely), just talking about the flatware could fill any conversational gaps.
3. Don’t get intimidated or trapped by the names. Sardines serving sets, toast forks, 4 o’clock teaspoon, the ice cream slice; I have a number of clients confess to me that they would never use these pieces because they never serve these items. It does not matter.
Technically this is a toast fork. It is gorgeous, a Mother of Pearl handle and the rest is sterling silver. Perfect for serving smoked salmon or ham.
Throw caution to the wind and serve veggies with the sardine fork. As I have written before, Emily Post is not going to jump out of the bushes and rap you over the knuckles.
4. Buy vintage and go green. Antiques are Green is a wonderful organization that did a very interesting comparative study about the relative carbon footprint of a modern dresser vs. an antique one. Guess which had the smaller carbon footprint? While they have not done a study specifically on silver, I’d be willing to bet that the principle holds true.
5. What to look for when buying?
• Make sure it’s something you really love. If you like simple and spare, find it. Is over-the-top rococo your thing? There’s plenty out there. Don’t buy something “safe” because it is safe.
Does the sumptuous scrollwork of Louis XVI by the Whiting Manufacturing Co. speak to you? Or do you prefer the spare, classic lines of the traditional fiddle pattern? These pieces are Georgian c. 1777, but many modern versions exist.
• Look for well-made, high-quality pieces. Examine the back or reverse of an item as thoroughly as you would the front. A well- made piece is finished just as nicely on the back as the front.
This an extreme example, but the backs of these figural serving pieces are just as detailed as the fronts. Each flower is shown from both sides.
• Is it a nice weight? Shop around and pick up as many pieces as possible, getting to know how they feel. Some patterns will seem heavy for their size, other might feel light. Heavier is better – it means more silver.
This is the Christina pattern by Gorham. First issued in 1935, it was in production until 1991. The spoon on the left is much older than the one on the right.
6. It’s not as delicate as you think. It’s metal. It was made to be used every day. The pieces most of us own are not museum pieces – although I know of one museum worthy piece in use.
Sterling is a decorative art, but first and foremost it was intended to be functional.
7. Silver has fascinating stories to tell. Every piece was designed and made by someone who was reacting to, or trying to define, the world around us. Politics, art, history, economics, social trends — all of these influences are embodied in silver.
I had the pleasure of documenting some silver for a client, and among the items I cataloged was a pair of spoons dated 1765. As I followed the trail of their history, I found that the spoons had been made by George Hanners, a silversmith in Boston in the early 1700’s.
The first maker’s mark he registered in 1720 had his initials underneath a crown. The second mark he registered years later had the initials, but no crown. Hmmm, do you think his political views were changing?
Thoughtful | Functional | Beautiful
That is the tagline for my business. I truly believe that sterling displays all of those attributes.
The other point is that, by creating a “don’t touch, it will break” mentality about silver, and other antiques more generally, we are perpetuating a cycle that eventually leads to having no feelings for these things at all. The result is items are either stuffed in the closet, never to see the light of day again, or they are sold for their value as scrap metal.
In my own case, I know I cherish items in my personal collection not for their artistic merit, scarcity, or monetary value, but for the memories I have when I pick them up. If we never have a chance to use and touch, and our children grow up only with memories of being told “don’t touch,” it can’t come as a surprise to anyone when our children don’t care. Why should they?
Get that silver out of storage.
Use it, enjoy it, make memories with it. It’s beautiful, it’s tough, and it will outlast all of us.
Nancy Stuckwisch, owner of Silver Magpies, has had a life-long fascination with silverware. For 14 years she ran her own environmental consulting firm, working with non-profit environmental organizations. One day she decided to close it down and take another path. And with that, Silver Magpies came into being.
Silver Magpies specializes in antique and vintage silver for the table and bar. Every piece of silver has a story – it was not created in a vacuum. Social, artistic, political, economic, historical and personal influences all leave their mark. One of Nancy’s favorite parts of her business is researching each and every piece that crosses her desk and passing the information she learns on to her clients.
Notes & Observations is where Nancy regularly blogs about sterling silver, hallmarks, and silver in general. She strongly believes that we should get the silver out of the cupboard, onto the table, and then into the dishwasher. Use it, enjoy it, and don’t give tarnish an opportunity to develop. In her experience with clients, polishing away tarnish is the prime reason the silverware stays packed away.
Nancy is a British expat living in the US. She holds a BSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics, an MA in War Studies from King’s College, London, and an BSc in Geography from the London School of Economics. Surprisingly, these degrees come in handier than you might imagine.