Terminology is all relative

Pin It

What does it all mean?

sterling silver, vintage silver

Utterly delicious and (quite) rare…yes. OOAK, not in the least.

Antique, rare, OOAK, minty, the list goes on and on.

It’s easy, especially, when you are writing descriptions for items you’re selling online, to get a bit heavy on the hyperbole.  After all, my items are going head to head to compete for your dollars with other vendors.  Everything seems one-of-a-kind, that’s OOAK for the uninitiated.  Or minty, as far as I can work out, this is a combination vintage and mint with an extra y for hep cat cool, etc, etc.

For my own benefit, (and it probably really is my own, as my two dear readers are no doubt recovering from Thanksgiving) I’m going to sketch out the Silver Magpies relative scale of terminology.

First comes the age indicator.

As I repeat to anyone reckless enough to show the slightest interest, I deal in antique and vintage sterling silver.  If their eyes have not glazed over instantaneously, I then try to elaborate.  Antique, to me, is definitely before 1900, i.e. 1899 and older.  Vintage falls in a range from 1900 to 1960.  My definition of vintage is unrepentantly idiosyncratic. I refuse to call anything too close to my own age vintage.

The line between antique and vintage is much trickier.  It can be sector specific, the electronic games I played as a kid are virtually pre-historic in that industry’s terms.  But I’ve seen post WWII silver described as antique.   Across the Atlantic in the UK, 1900 isn’t anywhere near antique.  So what to do?  As I live and work here, I’ve set this boundary line.  It’s easy to remember, and no one has disputed it…yet.

Alright, relative age has been established.

Let’s consider descriptions of condition.

Mint, minty, excellent, good, bad, indifferent.  As I’ve expounded in in a previous post, all of the pieces I sell are old, to one degree or another.  They amount of use, the care with which they have been used, cleaned, and stored is wildly varied.  Nothing – nothing – is mint.

As a rule, I don’t offer items for sale unless they are, at the very least, in good condition.  Good meaning they might have a flaw – always disclosed – that does not interfere with the structural or artistic integrity of the piece.  One of the most fabulous pieces I’ve ever had is a whiskey flask that has some bumps and bruises, but it works and it is breathtaking.

Excellent means there are no large flaws, and the amount of wear that is evident is consistent with it’s age.  Relative and subjective – yes, it is.  That is one of the difficult parts of the job.  I need to look at a spoon, bowl, cup, etc. and mentally compare and consider it against this subjective standard.

A theoretical exercise.

I have a spoon made in 1776, if I describe it as in excellent condition, it will have patina (fine surface marks and the silver will no longer be mirror shiny) but it won’t have any damage.  In a spoon of that age wear to the tip of the bowl is very common.  Often you can clearly see that mainly right-handed people have used them, the bowl has been perceptibly worn away on one edge.  If this were the case it would be listed in good condition with an explanation.  I would consider it unacceptable wear and tear on a spoon made, let’s say in 1950, and would not include it in my inventory.  When you are 200+ a few wrinkles are allowed.


Now the really tricky bit, the adjectives with which you describe an item.

Rare and one-of a-kind are very problematic for me.  The easiest cut is whether a piece is handmade or not.  By definition handmade pieces are, I feel, one-of -a-kind.  Even if they are made in quantity, the individual process by which they are created renders each one one-of-a-kind.  That is one of the reasons I love vintage pieces by Sciarrotta and Leonore Doskow.  Those pieces were handmade, a real rarity in modern, er, vintage times.

Machine-made silver is a different story.

To to one degree or another, the vast majority of sterling produced in the US after the Civil War was machine-made.  Some pieces might be hand finished, but most were mass produced.  The amount of “mass” depended on the original production run, manufacturer’s capacities varied – Gorham and International Silver vs. Hamilton & Davis or Chas. M. Robbins – it made a big difference.  The popularity of the pattern matters too.  There is a lot of Chantilly out there, not so much Berry.  Time has taken it’s toll. Pieces break, get thrown out, go missing.

By my definition, none of the machine-made silver is one-of-a kind.  It might be rare.  The Berry knives I found for a client, I believe, I can justifiably call rare.  Maybe even, with a touch of artistic license, I can say that finding a set of 12 dinner knives was unique!

Pin It

One thought on “Terminology is all relative

  1. Zoë Griffith-JonesNo Gravatar

    Dear Magpie,
    I found a couple of beautiful implements at a junque store, badly tarnished. Cleaned them up and turned to the Internet to find some info on them. Five hours later, I finally found photos on your 12/15/2010 Etsy posting # 62878457 — they are two pieces of a 5-piece R&B condiment serving set in Aesthetic Movement floral designs (sugar shovel and lemon fork). How incredibly fun! Thank you! I’m not a professional collector (I just love quirky oldish stuff) or dealer or anything close, but now my new quest in life is to find the remaining three pieces.

    However, I can’t seem to find any background info on these designs. Were they widely circulated? Part of larger sets? When were they made? (Would also be interested to know how much the 5-piece set sold for, but if that’s confidential info, I understand…but I suspect I paid considerably below-market for these two pieces, so I can’t guess their worth or what to expect to pay for the other pieces). Is it likely I’ll find the others?

    If you don’t have time to answer all this, could you direct me to a good website or book for info? I’ll be greatly indebted. Thank you for your entertaining and educational website.

    Zoë Griffith-Jones
    Denver, Colorado

Comments are closed.