Patina, or why does this spoon look used?

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english silver, sterling silver, art deco salt spoon

A lightly tarnished Art Deco salt spoon, London, 1924, Robert Dore.

It is an inescapable fact that antiques and vintage pieces show signs of use.

Sterling is naturally soft and prone to surface marks, scratches, dings and dents.  Even the most careful polishing leaves fine marks.  The charcoal briquette looking items I find at estate sales that have barely been used still show some minor surface marks.  These pieces by definition are old and have been used to varying degrees by other people.

Now some of you are thinking…no kidding.

But you’d be surprised at how many people expect them to look in mint condition.  I actually have had people ask me why items look “used” – as in why does this spoon made in 1776 have marks on it!!

I’ve managed to keep a straight face and then gone on to explain “patina”.  The easiest explanation is signs of use and care.  These marks are the norm.

Do not confuse patina with tarnish.

vintage silver, pitting hidden by tarnish

This is pitting, on a different piece, that was hidden by a “light” layer of tarnish.

Tarnish is the dark discoloration that happens to silver when it is exposed to air and unused. Tarnish hides many flaws, including serious issues, like pitting.

Pitting likes to hide under tarnish.

Pitting is literally pits in the surface of the silver, where it has been eaten away by something. Salt left in an unlined container is a common cause of pitting.

Sure, there are things one can do to diminish the evidence of prior use and possession – i.e. remove patina.  Monograms can be removed (with varying degrees of success).  Items can be buffed to bring back the “mint” shine.

It is a matter of personal taste, but patina is part of what attracts me to antiques.

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