History of Sterling Silver
Characteristics of Sterling Silver
The whitest of all of the precious metals, sterling silver has been heralded for centuries for its highly lustrous finish and versatile applications. Although harder than gold, sterling silver is still considered one of the more pliable and supple metals. Its malleability makes silver easy to hammer and mold into various forms and shapes. Silver melts at a slightly lower temperature than gold (1760 degrees F as opposed to 1960 degrees F).
Naming & History of Sterling Silver
Dating back to the time of primitive man, silver has been referred to by many different naming conventions. The story of how the word “sterling” was incorporated into the name is rooted in 12th-century lore. As payment for English cattle, an association of eastern Germans compensated the British with silver coins dubbed “Easterlings.” Eventually, the Easterling was widely accepted as a standard of English currency. The name was ultimately abbreviated to “Sterling,” which is now used to refer to the highest grade of silver metal.
The official designation of “sterling” to a piece of silver indicates that it contains at least 92.5% of pure silver. The remaining 7.5% can be comprised of any other metal alloy, most commonly copper. Although it may seem that an even higher silver content would be desirable, that’s not actually the case. Metal alloys with a silver content of more than 92.5% are too pliable to be used without suffering from dents and dings. The second alloy is required to ensure the metal’s stability and resilience.
Other Types of Silver
In addition to sterling silver, which contains 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper alloy, there are many different varieties and grades of silver in production throughout the world:
Fine silver: This type of silver has a silver content of 99.9% or higher. Fine silver is much too soft to be used in everyday applications, such as jewelry, d?r accents, or tableware. This premium class of silver is used to make bullion bars for international commerce.
Britannia silver: A higher grade than sterling silver, Britannia has a silver content of at least 95.84%. Originating as a standard in Britain as far back as 1697, Britannia silver is denoted by a hallmark stamp of “958” to indicate its silver content, sometimes accompanied by the symbol of Britannia.
Mexican silver: Another premium silver, Mexican silver consists of at least 95% pure silver and 5% copper. This elite form of the metal is not currently in wide circulation in Mexico; most of the silver jewelry and accents sold in Mexican marketplaces is forged from 92.5% sterling.
Coin silver: Comprised of 90% silver and 10% copper, coin silver is made from melting down standard silver coins. Lower in silver content than sterling, this metal was widely used as silver tableware in the United States between 1820 and 1868, and as common currency until 1964.
German silver: This term is usually used to refer to 800-standard silver, which consists of 80% silver and is commonly used for silverware, silver tableware, and decorative silver accents. 900-standard silver is another higher-grade version of German silver, and has a 90% silver content.
History of Sterling Silver in Fine Dining
If you’ve ever attended a very formal dinner party, you may have noticed the use of sterling silver tableware in some capacity. With its polished luster and timeless elegance, the addition of silver has the power to turn any ordinary meal into an elaborate event. Although used more sparingly today, the precious metal was historically a key component in setting a proper table.
The use of sterling silver in fine dining was most prevalent between 1840 and 1940, with the biggest surge between 1870 and 1920. During this time, the production and merchandising of silver ramped up considerably to accommodate the growing demand.
During the Victorian era, it was frowned upon to ever touch or handle food without the use of a utensil. The ultimate criterion for a fine dining table was sterling silver flatware, a must when setting a table for a formal meal in the United States and Europe. Silver flatware collections were extensive, often including up to 100 pieces. Formal dinners in the late 1800s and early 1900s were long, extravagant affairs, sometimes including up to 10 or more courses, each of which demanded its own set of silver utensils. It wasn’t uncommon to use several different types of sterling silver forks, spoons, and knives during a typical dinner.
Sterling silver was also used for serving pieces, such as large forks, cake knives, carving knives, soup spoons, and gravy ladles. In addition to its pleasing aesthetic properties, silver’s heft and stability made it a serviceable tool for cutting and serving food. Often, silver serving pieces were embellished with hand-carved designs and ivory accents.
And it didn’t stop there. Decorative table accents included sterling silver napkin rings, coasters, and elaborate silver candlesticks. After the meal, the precious metal was used for pots of hot water for tea, post-dinner liqueur goblets, sterling silver water pitchers, silver mint julep cups, and dishes of melted chocolate for topping desserts.
The prevalence of sterling silver in fine dining waned a bit in the mid-1900s, mainly due to rising costs of silver production. With modernity came a faster pace of life-people were busier and more rushed, and the elaborate, multi-course dinners that had once been the norm were relegated to only very special occasions among the upper class. Sterling silver dishes and tableware required a more time-consuming cleaning process than other materials, which also contributed to its diminishing popularity at the dinner table.
Today, although it’s not as widely used as it was during the Victorian era, there are many different ways you can revive the tradition of incorporating pure sterling silver tableware into a fine dining setting. Display hors d’oeuvres on a silver platter, or fill ornate silver cups with sugar and cream for coffee. Sterling silver flatware continues to make a grand impression, and serves as a luxurious wedding or housewarming gift. Accents such as silver candlesticks, vases, and sterling silver place card holders are also great ways to include the fine metal in your table decor.