Silver in Design-American Silver Hollowware and Flatware
Where does one start appreciating the beauty of silver, both antique and modern?
Silver is an exciting, sensuous metal that has evolved into some of the most romantically elegant objects throughout the ages.
The term “silverware” pertains to two basic categories or groups of silver: flatware, consisting of forks, knives, spoons and serving pieces, and hollowware, which is silver crafted into containers such as bowls, dishes, pitchers, compotes, etc.
Because silver is a soft metal, it was necessary to combine it with another metal that would give it the strength and hardness needed to make objects that would withstand use. That metal was typically copper. The term “sterling” refers to the standard ratio of silver to copper. Sterling contains 92.5% silver, with the remaining 7.5% being copper or another metal. This standard for the correct proportion of alloys of silver and other metals was set by the British as 925/1000 silver.
Before the Civil War, American silversmiths didn’t really have a standard that they strictly adhered to, and the measurement of silver alloy and other metals was inconsistent and varied from silversmith to silversmith. Because of this, British silver was considered more reliable because the British government was very strict about their silver standard. Americans wanted to be competitive in this very competitive market, so American silversmiths adopted the British standard in order to compete with the British in a market where the British enjoyed a reputation for producing the finest silver.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, American silver hollowware became available in a large variety of styles. Many designs were adapted from existent European pieces. Also, silver artists were engaged by American manufacturers to create unique designs. During the late 19th century, it was the custom for a client to visit the local silversmith with a request and a description of a silver design they had seen somewhere, most likely in Europe, and wanted to commission one just like it for themselves. There might have been drawings involved, however, I think the descriptions were mostly verbal and the silversmith had to interpret the verbal description. Because of the variety of charming silver pieces that emerged during this time, it all seems to have worked out quite well for everyone.
Design styles in silver range from Gothic Revival to Neoclassic, Japanese, the exquisite styles and craftsmanship of Tiffany and Gorham, Art Nouveau, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, and finally Modernism, with many styles in between.
An imaginative collection of glorious silver pieces were produced by American manufacturers during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Silver hollowware included: centerpieces, tureens, bowls, tea and coffee services, serving trays, platters, gravy boats, vases, water pitchers, cake baskets, chafing dishes, egg coddlers, butter dishes, ice containers, and much more.
The leading American manufacturers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were arguably Tiffany and Gorham.
In the late 1800’s America was ready to stand out from the pack, and there was a demand for new ideas and a new design direction. Japan supplied the stimulus that wetted the American design appetite and all the hungry buyers.
A movement ensued that imitated the Japanese style hollowware.
The Japanese style was characterized by a hand-hammered look which, for practicality purposes, camouflaged small surface scratches. Also characteristic of the Japanese style was a fluid patterning of vines, leaves, flowers, and insects, plus, the inclusion of other metals, such as gold and copper. Mixing metals was a Japanese innovation that was adopted by both Tiffany and Gorham.
Thanks to their designer, Edwin C. Moore, Tiffany was the leader in Japanese style silver. American designers traveled to Europe for inspiration. Nothing has changed, it seems. Even now, we designers often travel to Europe and Asia for inspiration. Moore was highly influenced by the Japanese art that he saw at the 1867 Exposition in London.
Gorham and Whiting also led the industry in bringing the Japanese style into America.
From the end of the 19th century to about 1910, a new movement took root, which was a natural evolution of the Japanese movement. It was known as Art Nouveau, and known for its curvy, ripple-y, flowing lines. Unfortunately, the movement didn’t last long as a popular style. Gorham took the Art Nouveau movement a step forward by developing the martele, or hand-hammered style that was exclusive to Gorham.
Toward the end of the martele period, Gorham began to add a greater amount of pure silver to their sterling, thus making the alloy softer and easier to work with. Some martele is 950/1000 silver alloy.
Industries are businesses after all. Because they are businesses, they are often antithetical to the needs of the creative people. Feelings of discontent grew amongst the artists who fueled the silver industries with their creative input. American craftsmen became weary of the anonymity of the silver industry. It was time for the “individual” craftsman to emerge. This discontent led to the creation of the Arts and Crafts movement which made the craftsman more important in the eyes of the public. The movement served to remind people that these beautiful objects were created by hand. Silver hollowware and flatware produced during the Arts and Crafts movement was characterized by simple lines and hand hammering that intentionally let the craftsman’s marks show in the finished piece. Before Arts and Crafts, silver pieces were much more polished and ornate. The movement continued through the 1920’s.
The Modernism period began in the 1920’s and continues to the present day. The period is characterized by 2 styles: Art Deco and Futuristic design.
Art Deco was popular in the 20’s and 30’s. The design of this period is very stylized, almost industrial looking with straight lines and stylized geometric shapes. It’s very decorative. Many of the facades, portals, and architectural details of buildings in New York City are excellent examples of Art Deco. Note: the top of the Chrysler Building and the original Radio City Music Hall, including its lobby are Art Deco. In Europe, Art Deco’s architectural counterpart is the Bauhaus school in Germany (1919-1933). I will address the Bauhaus school in another article.
The Futuristic style is perhaps best represented by the work of Georg Jensen in Denmark. The design is very simple and sleek. Simplicity continues to characterize contemporary silver pieces. Architect Richard Meier designed a wonderful tea service set for the Italian manufacturer, Alessi. We are proud to represent it at Shopsicle in our silver collection. It’s a limited edition and highly collectible. We also represent a beautiful silver tea service, designed by architect, Michael Graves. It is also a limited edition, and manufactured by Alessi. Both editions were produced in 1983.
Silver, in all its forms and styles throughout history, beautifully reflects the mystery and romance of the period during which it was designed.
Living with silver is a joy. If you are a collector, then silver is something you might consider collecting. Like paintings, it is a good investment and it gives you pleasure.
American silver will probably offer the most diversity in styles. It is a combination of influences from all over the world, plus a healthy infusion of American ingenuity and inventiveness.
Some of my favorite silver is the limited edition teas services that were designed by the great architects. They are very beautiful and highly collectible.
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