As I mentioned on Monday, I had a really lovely note from Susie aka @Remodel_w_Feia on Twitter who asked me to explain a little more about vintage silver plate. So let’s plunge right in.
How deep is vintage silver plate?
Silver plating is the name given to the process of electro-statically coating a piece of metal with silver particles. This process was developed in England in the 1840’s and essentially remains unchanged.
Let’s take the example of a spoon. The spoon is manufactured out of base metal – often a zinc, nickel, or sometimes even lead alloy – in the exact shape and design of the eventual finished product.
A batch of spoons are then suspended in a tank along with silver ingots. An electric charge is applied, resulting in the transfer of particles from the silver onto the base metal forms. This coating is only a few microns thick, sometimes only a single micron thick.
The practice of marking items double, triple, quadruple and even hotel plated was never Federally regulated. According to Dorothy Rainwater p.73 American Silverplate there was “policing within the industry” but no set standard for what these terms meant. So it may just be a marketing term, unlike an item marked sterling – meaning it must be 925 silver – regardless of who made it.
Are there advantages to vintage silver plate over sterling silver?
Yes, like anything, there are pros and cons, many of which are simply determined by personal preference.
Silver plate is, for the most part, more affordable than sterling. Although there are exceptions. The famous French manufacturer Christofle work almost exclusively in silver plate and their fabulous work commands serious prices.
Silver plate is incredibly beautiful in it’s own right. I have a particular fondness for the massive silver over copper serving trays. Many of these wonderful mid-century pieces are done in incredibly ornate Victorianesque style and weigh a huge amount. I love when the plating has worn away in spots from lots of use and the rosy tint of the copper begins to peek through. It is a great irony that these beauties will probably never be produced again because the copper they are based on is so expensive. So snatch them up when you see one! I always do.
What is Sheffield Plate?
Sheffield Plate was the first version of silver plate. The Sheffield process involves essentially making a silver and copper sandwich and melding the layers together with heat and pressure. Genuine pieces of “Old Sheffield Plate” are rare and valuable. But just because a piece of silver plate was manufactured in Sheffield, it does not mean that it is “Sheffield Plate”.
Identifying Silver Plate
This is a subject in and of itself. Just as there are a myriad of different marks for countries and manufacturers of sterling (and other standards of silver) so there are for silver plate. Many silver plate marks mimic sterling marks and are easily misidentified.
Caring for Vintage Silver-Plate
As silver plate is such a thin coating applied to a form, in some ways it is much more delicate than sterling. While the form itself is often more durable than sterling, the plating is relatively easy to wear away.
You can see evidence of that on any well-used piece of silver plate. There are often places where the plating is gone and the base metal is visible.
It seems logical that eventually any regularly used piece of silver plate is going to show signs of wear. Certainly I have seen pieces of sterling that have suffered from over zealous polishing, literally wearing away detail on a piece, so the same applies to silver-plate.
The key, as is so often the case, is treat it with respect. The biggest culprit in ruining the finish of silver plate is over-polishing. Just like sterling, it’s not meant to look like a mirror. In order to keep it looking mirror-like you have to be quite agressive with the polish and that will cause plate loss faster than anything else.
As to the $64,000 question of whether it can go in the dishwasher or not? The answer is not. Among other things even a tiny interruption in the surface of the silver particles can allow the water to come into contact with the base metal form allowing it to rust. Not a good thing.
To re-plate or not?
This is purely personal preference, but I’d always say no.
- Re-plating might diminish the value of the piece.
- Let it age gracefully. Vintage by definition is not brand new. Signs of care and use are signs of character, do you really want to obliterate that?
- Not too many place do re-plating nowadays. When you do find someone it is almost always a very expensive process.
Do however exercise caution when using worn silver plate with food. As I mentioned above lead was sometimes used in the base metal.
I don’t think of sterling and silver plate as an either or question. I happily mix both on the table, and have some silver plate pieces I prize as much as sterling one. How do you feel about it?