The series of posts about replacement blades for silver knives written a few weeks ago led to an interesting discussion with a client about sterling silver knife handles. The individual with whom I had this discussion was very surprised to learn that the handle of a typical lunch or dinner knife is not solid sterling. Rather, handles are hollow and the interior is filled with some sort of bonding agent, either glue, rosin or cement.
It struck me that this might be a topic worth posting about. If one person is confused about sterling silver knife handles, likely others out there are too. This post is part 1 of 3 in a new series examining sterling silver knife handles. Today, before we look at the interior of a knife handle, we’ll consider the historical context within which the dinner knife developed
An incredibly short history of sterling silver knife handles
The matching 5 piece place setting with sterling silver knife handles is a recent development in flatware. For centuries, possibly millennia, you came to the table equipped with your own knife. Your knife was a multi-purpose tool used for everything, including eating. In Europe, as society began to recover from the devastating plagues at the end of the late Middle Ages and began to move towards the great flowering of the humanities during the Renaissance the dining table, as we now know it, began to emerge.
Flourishing royal courts and developing fashionable society looked for new ways to demonstrate their power, position, wealth, and status. Forks and spoons were hugely costly items. Even owning a few of each was a tangible representation of a staggering amount of wealth. To have enough to feed a crowd…well, the message would not be lost on even the least intelligent of diners. Your host was a force to be reckoned with. This was social theatre you needed to pay attention to.
Now add a new twist. Eventually in the the mid-1600’s a design genius struck upon the idea of matching the handles of spoons and forks. Again remember these items were staggeringly costly and time-consuming to hand make. The development of the trefid, considered the first flatware ‘pattern’ because the fork and spoon matched. However, silver knives are still absent from the stage. Silversmiths made forks and spoons (and often they specialized in making only one or the other) and cutlers/blacksmiths made knives.
Most antique and vintage European silverware ‘sets’ do not have knives that match the rest of the pieces. Often the handles of the knives are made from a different material altogether. French sets frequently feature ebony or horn handles. English ones often use mother-of-pearl for the knife handles. Until we get to Victorian times silver is one of the least used materials for knife handles in Europe and the US. Even late into the 19th century, using other materials was common…look at this superb set using agate handles.
The sterling silver knife handle as we know it does not really come to the forefront until the very late Victorian era – a time when the manufacture, rather than artisan creation was well established. It is not a coincidence that the late Victorian era is also when silver manufacturers went mad inventing all sorts of new, ‘must have’ flatware. And society ate it up.
Next week in Part 2 we will cover some reasons why silver is functionally undesirable material for knife making. In Part 3 we’ll finally examine the ‘modern’ knife handle to understand how silver-makers have engineered an elegant compromise of form and function.