It is true that English silver has, for centuries, been accepted as the finest in the world. This is due to; the unique system of Hallmarks, the zeal and zealous traditions of the Guild of English Goldsmiths. In over six centuries, not a single silver article has been allowed to be sold in England as sterling, unless it has been first tested at the “Hall” to determine that its quality is up to the required standard; 92.5 % pure silver, the remaining 7.5 % of alloy was allowed to be copper, which with the process of fashioning and aging give silver a fine blue “patina.”
How to identify Silverware that has passed Hall
At the Hall, each silver item that passes the purity test is stamped with a number of identifying marks such as:
- The Lion standing sideways with its front paw raised to show it is of the required quality.
- The insignia of the town or city in which the test was made; for example, London is known by the mark of the Leopard’s head, Birmingham by an Anchor, and Sheffield by the Crown.
- A letter of the alphabet is used to illustrate a given year, thus representing the date. Since many cycles of alphabets can be written in different ways; A, a, A, and others, many years can be covered.
On top of the marks above, the silversmith may place his own identifying mark upon the silver; usually his initials.
What is determined from the hallmarks?
- Purity of content.
- Town of manufacture.
- Date of manufacture.
- Identification of the craftsman.
To keep up with the quality of the silversmith, a silversmith was required by the laws of the Guild to apprentice for not less than seven years. And, at the end of that learning period, the apprentice becomes a full member of the Guild as a Master Silversmith; this protected the quality of metal and the quality of craftsmanship.
Towards the end of the 17th century, when Protestants were being persecuted again in France, most of the cream of French silversmiths (Huguenots) fled to England seeking religious freedom. Since many of them were equal to England’s finest, they were accepted and their influence in design can be seen even in the present day.
The New Era
The birth of the industrial revolution and the introduction of tea as a national drink in the 18th century provided wealth for the common person; they could buy silver and while also creating the need to use it as a show of one’s worldly valuable possessions by means of a display of silver at home. During that time, the crafting of silver was a major art form; the world was on a silver-not-gold standard.
Antique Sheffield Plate
At around 1745, Thomas Boulsover introduced Old Sheffield Plate. The method consisted of joining a thick ingot of silver to a thicker ingot of copper through fusion. Afterward, the single ingot was rolled out into sheet form; this made articles of “imitation silver”. Basically, the quality of Sheffield was determined by the ratio of silver to copper and which was initially controlled by the silversmith at the ingot stage’. The success of this form of silverware was great. Later, in 1784, a tax was impacted on Sterling Silver that resulted in Sheffield Plate-makers to increase and multiply very fast. The law prohibited placing any marks on Sheffield Plate to resemble sterling marks; this why the fine old pieces are unmarked, only sometimes with a maker’s mark.
The Old Sheffield Plate is a term relative to those whose business includes buying and selling English silver and plated wares. It covers silver plated items made in Sheffield and Birmingham in the much called “Sheffield Century”, which span from about 1750 to about 1840, when the introduction of electroplating, with its economy, and production advantage superseded the original method of plating.
However, the exact date of the discovery that led to the production of Sheffield Plate is not clearly known but is thought to probably sometime between 1740 and 1750. This is when Thomas Boulsover, a Sheffield silversmith, was working on the repair of a silver-handled knife, accidentally overheated it; as a result of his mistake, the silver became fused with a piece of copper. Amazed by the outcome of his mistake; he then tried to fuse together a block of copper and a block of silver and then rolled the two together into sheet form. He subsequently produced the first sheet of fused silver and copper; thus the name “Sheffield” for its place of origin.
What were the steps involved in the manufacture of Old Sheffield Plate?
- The surfaces of an ingot of copper and a strip of fine silver were flattened by hammering.
- The silver was bound to the copper by heavy steel wires. The two metals were then fused by a furnace at a high temperature.
- The fused metals were rolled into sheets. At this point processes varied, depending upon the article to be manufactured.
Single Rolled Plate
A silver strip was placed on one side of the copper ingot, the underside was covered with molten tin to conceal the copper; this explains the “black” appearance of the underside and inside of many old Sheffield pieces. The tin-backed pieces became known as “Poverty Back” items.
Double Rolled Plate
Silver strips were placed on both sides of the copper ingot in the initial process, and then the final product would show silver on both sides. Most of the Old Sheffield Plate pieces were shaped from a flat piece of metal by hand-hammering. Many flat pieces; tea trays, salvers, dishes, were stamped with hand-cut dies.
Old Sheffield pieces invariably had fancy mounts that were filled with a metal composition and carefully soldered to the item; handles and feet of trays, waiters and dishes were made in a similar manner.
The final process included hand-burnishing of all silver surfaces to harden the silver and gave it a bright finish.
Initially, engraving was not possible, making the copper to be exposed. But, at the end of the century, a method of “letting in” a silver shield was devised; a small shield was cut from the piece and then a sterling silver shield was cut off of exactly the same shape and size and substituted under heat. Much care was taken to ensure that the surface of the sterling silver shield and surface of the area into which it was fitted was clean and flat.
Not all pieces of Old Sheffield Plate were marked, as marking was not required by law. For the most part, marked pieces were done by silversmiths who took pride in the merchandise they created. Such men included Thomas Law, Matthew Boulton, and the Creswicks, to name only a few. Where marks were used, it was still impossible to determine the exact date of manufacture because often only symbols were employed. However, experts can determine the approximate date of most items with reasonable accuracy by examining shape and decoration.
NB// The Sheffield process lasted slightly less than 100 years; from about 1745 to about 1840.
What ended the Sheffield Process?
Dr. Smee’s discovery of electroplating in 1843 spelt death for plating by fusion; it was faster and less expensive to use. With just some slight alteration, the same method has been handed down from father to son in a long line of craftsmen.
What is Electroplating?
Electroplating method is to filling a “vat” with a weak solution of acid containing certain salts, into which is placed an “anode” of pure silver. The item to be silvered is then suspended into the vat and a weak electric current is passed through the acid which attracts particles of silver from the anode and throws it onto the piece immersed alongside; in most cases, the suspension time determines the quality and thickness of the silver coating. After the desired period, the piece is removed from the vat and washed with water and acid. The finishing is done with a fast-spinning buffing machine.
Victorian Plated Ware
This term is used to refer to plated articles made during the last years of the Victorian period; these articles are of high-grade manufacture and based on various hard metals; Electroplate on Nickel Silver (E.P.N.S.), or white metal.
It must be noted that most English Silversmiths concentrated on good quality and design, instead of price. This is the reason why English silver and English silverplate are seen all over the world. The high quality is the reason why English silver has lasted so long and will continue to be enjoyed by many future generations.