If you take a closer look at our recent pieces on Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, the elaborate dress rituals of the characters reflects the wall-to-wall opulence of this bygone lifestyle. Some key, but often easily overlooked, accompaniments support the elegance of the setting; however, without them, the picture would fall apart. Can you imagine the ridiculous juxtaposition of a tailcoat or tuxedo and a plastic, rather than a silver spoon? Today on the Gentleman’s Gazette, we will examine the lost art and style of silver flatware, and more specifically, the lovely Grande Regency pattern from International Sterling.
The Origins of Silver Flatware
In the present day, silverware is assumed to be any kind of flatware meant for eating. Traditionally, the word is derived from the silver-based construction of the utensils. Silver was not the first metal used; it emerged later as the status-symbol metal of choice. In the mid-19th century, flatware was mostly constructed of iron, steel, and pewter; by 1840, pewter’s popularity was waning and silver became the new ideal. For those who could not afford silver, pewter (or tin, of which pewter is 80% composed) was often used a base metal for electroplating, a process that became popular at the turn of the 19thcentury, and subsequently reached large scale production in the 1870’s. A silver craze followed between 1870 and 1920. Some flatware patterns featured as many as 300 different pieces, which served the stuffy Victorian etiquette that stipulated no direct contact between food and fingers. Interestingly, these large 12 (or even
more) piece place settings have a large number of different silver spoons. For example, a 10-piece setting could sometimes include a tablespoon, oval dinner silver spoon, a round gumbo silver spoon, desert silver spoon, teaspoon and demitasse silver spoon. On top of that, there were quite a few serving spoons like a sugar shell silver spoon and a pierced silver spoon.
Though the popularity of silver declined steadily within the US after the economic boom of the 20’s, World War II proffered the fatal blow. The rising cost of hand-production labor, pretentious and unpatriotic associations with elaborate meals during wartime, and movement towards simpler aesthetics signaled the close of the silver craze.
Today, silver pieces are often associated with outmoded social rituals and lonely occupants of cluttered antique shops. While the open and unabashed ostentation of the aristocratic silver service is unlikely ever to return in favor (unless you’re a Windsor, I suppose, for whom it has never gone out of style), a touch of silver at dinner adds sophistication to the increasingly unsophisticated style of the evening meal. If you, like I, cringe at the American fondness for convenient disposable cutlery and plastic cups, regardless of the occasion (ahem, weddings), or the meager fork-and-knife only presentation (for the whole meal!) of most restaurants, then silver, especially the silver spoon – may have a place at your table.
Like any item crafted from valuable metals, silver flatware is costly. A single silver spoon (just a teaspoon) from my Sterling set contains $45 worth of silver alone, at the current market value. A hypothetical starter set with six 4-piece place settings (silver spoon, salad fork, dinner fork, knife), one serving fork and one serving spoon can be obtained for around $1600. Despite the steep initial cost, silver is an investment, and long-term value is not dependent upon the stylishness of the pattern due to the price of the metal alone. Silver-plate is a reasonably priced alternative, especially for everyday use, which we will cover further in a following article.
International Sterling: Grande Regency
The past reference to Grandmother’s hand-me-downs, in our case, is a true one. For many, such a gift would be unlikely to generate much excitement, but the receipt of 45 pieces of silverware produced quite the opposite reaction. According to my grandmother’s memory, she purchased the set at a deep discount at Power’s Department Store, a long-defunct chain, in 1969 – that’s right, 1969 – as the store was closing. Mind you, I didn’t come along until 1983, so she can hardly argue premeditation; regardless, she left the set in her basement for decades and presented them to me as a birthday gift in 2009. Forty years later, this silverware set finally had its first real user.
Most pieces in a set are solid silver, with the exception of knife blades. Silver is simply too soft for forceful contact, and as such knives are generally finished with lightweight stainless steel blades. My set contains 10 traditional four-piece place settings of salad fork, dinner fork, dinner knife, and teaspoon. Two large tablespoons, one solid silver spoon and pierced silver spoon, are included as serving spoons. A master butter spreader, a sugar silver spoon, and a lovely curved gravy ladle complete the serving pieces. Despite the specific purposes designated for the serving pieces, they can be used on an as-needed basis, as it is unlikely these days that your dinner guests will complain about the substitution of a bon-bon silver spoon for a vegetable silver spoon. Sadly, the set did not come with soup spoons but it seems like the silver spoon was on the decline even in the 60ies.
The pattern, Grande Regency, is an elegant and yet understated floral pattern with pierced detailing. A four-petal, pansy-like flower caps the beginning and the end of the handle, and is accented with a few small leaves and curling vines. Unlike some overly-flowery, intricate patterns of some silverware, the Grande Regency pattern blends subtle floral femininity with respect for modern aesthetics. The pattern easily bridges the formal and the informal, and provides the style necessary to render such an investment both auspicious and versatile.
How to build a silver flatware set of your own
There are many ways to build a silverware set of your own. If you prefer new silverware, there are only few distributors and producers on the internet; look for companies with a long history, such as Reed & Barton, French manufacturer, Christofle, or German purveyor of fine sterling flatware, Robbe & Berking. For a less expensive route, ebay, flea markets and antique shops, if you have the patience, will provide some interesting choices. Remember not to judge silver by its appearance; not many shop keepers will keep them in regular polish. A reputable antique store will not give you much of a silver discount, but they can help verify the origins and availability of a pattern.
Once you’ve picked a pattern, begin with place settings. After you’ve obtained enough to serve a typical dinner party, then move on to the serving pieces. Tablespoons, gravy ladles, and a meat fork are good first additions. Finally, once you have the basics, build your silverware set based on your needs. For us, the addition of a cake knife was important. Our next pieces will likely include oval soup silver spoons, a cake server, a utility serving fork, butter spreaders, and various fish utensils.
It is wise to ascertain the availability of additional pieces before settling on a pattern. The Grande Regency is widely sold by the piece on eBay, and with several online silver companies. Many silversmiths will custom-make old patterns, so it never hurts to inquire.
If Grandmother doesn’t oblige, we wish you the best of luck building your own silverware set and stay tuned for our follow-up article about how to clean silver.