Collecting Silver

Silver is one of the most underrated forms of collectables and seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it offers a wealth of opportunity to the discerning collector.  Silver collecting could be split into different categories, like make, designer, type of product (sugar tongues, salts, teapots).

The first recorded mention of silver is in the Book of Genesis in The Bible.  It was considered sacred and its use was restricted for religious purposes or by the wealthy.  It was called argentum by the Romans and this remains its chemical symbol.  To prove its purity, hallmarking was introduced in Britain from 1300.  The metal had to be no less than 92.5 pure, the level which we know today as sterling silver and in America the metal is marked 92.5.

The test for purity is known as assaying and the symbol of the assay office is marked along with the country of origin (a lion for English silver and gold) and the date shown as a letter in a distinctive font.  Anyone selling silver or gold has to display the hallmark sign on their stall.

Once you learn to recognize the various symbols it should be easy to date silver, but you need to take care.  Some unscrupulous dealers will ‘marry’  two objects, one with an older hallmark than the other.  This way they can pass something off as Georgian silver even if the other half is much later.  This is, however, easy to spot if you know what to look for.  For instance, if you are looking at a coffee pot, examine the rim where the base meets the body.  Does it look authentic or does it look as if it has been stuck on?  A genuine Georgian piece will be aged evenly, put together pieces won’t be.  The manufacture of later pieces would have been different, as methods of production changed and therefore the lines don’t match.

People often get confused between makers and designers.  Some makes were begun by designers such as Georg Jensen.  The company bearing his name continues although he died in 1935 and obviously doesn’t manufacture the pieces, but they are still made to his design.

Mappin and Webb are probably Britain’s most famous silversmiths.  The were founded in 1774 as Mappin by Jonathan Mappin when he opened a silversmith workshop in Sheffield.  In 1849 the first shop was opened in London and Mappin asked his Brother-in-Law George Webb to join him and Mappin and Webb was founded.   Their customers include the Royal Family and other celebrities and whilst they retain traditional methods and take commissions for special designs, they are not designer-led, but are renowned for the quality and style of their products.

Christopher Dresser designed silver and silver-plated goods for makers such as James Dixon and Sons and Hukin and Heath.  Sir Gerald Benney has worked in silver and pewter and also created jewellery.  He is renowned for creating the beaker that never tips over, thus combining engineering skills with quality workmanship and design.

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