Sterling Silver Knife Handles | Part 3 An elegant compromise

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Here we are, finally, at part 3  discussing the compromise designers had to come up with to create sterling silver knife handles that matched the rest of a flatware set.  To refresh your memory as to how we got here, week 1 looked at the history of knife handles and week 2 at why sterling is such a poor choice.

Silver flatware patterns and sets as we know them today, began to develop in the US by about 1840.  Let’s put that in some historical context.  The industrial revolution has been humming along for quite some time, the middle class has expanded dramatically and the trend towards urbanization is picking up steam.  That equals more people with social aspirations and the money to do something about them than ever before.  Dining and entertaining are an excellent way to announce to the world (or at least other people in the same city as you) that you have arrived.  Multiple courses and specialist pieces of flatware for each course are a not-so-subtle demonstration of your wealth.

More or less simultaneously, within the silver industry, mass production is really getting going.  The great silver companies – including, but not limited to Whiting, Gorham, Tiffany – and their second tier imitators are more than happy to meet the new found demand.  Even better unlike the old European system of individual specialists in, spoon-making, fork-making and then a whole separate craft of knife-making, these new companies are more than happy to centralise everything under one roof.  Not coincidentally increasing their revenues and expanding their markets. The last tricky problem for them to solve was making sterling silver knife handles that matched (as best they could) the rest of the pieces in one of their neatly patented flatware sets.

Sterling Silver Knife Handles

The most delicate part of a knife is the join between the blade and the handle.  We tend to think of them as merely meeting at that vulnerable join.  A better way to think of it as the tip of the iceberg. At the point where the blade is inserted into the handle, what we don’t see is a long strip of metal – called the tang – that is covered by the sterling handle.  To get a better idea of this, look at a high quality kitchen knife.  You can clearly see that the blade continues in one single piece right to the very end of the handle.  The knife handle is there for reasons of aesthetics and comfort.  The tang is there to ensure the structural integrity of the knife as a cutting tool.

sterling silver knife handles - full tang knife

Can you see how the blade of this kitchen knife actually extends all the way down to the end of the handle. This is a full tang, and the tang is essential to the stability of the knife.

The solution was to create a round-ish hollow tube which had a pattern matched the rest of the flatware set.  A blade with a long tang is then inserted into that tube and then filled with some type of bonding agent.  Sometimes the bond was rosin, or a mix of pitch and plaster, other times it is cement.  The whole point of the tang and the glue is to insulate/isolate the sterling silver knife handles from the stress of use.

If these components work properly ,bearing the brunt of the pressure created through use, then the knife blade will be fine.  If not the sterling silver knife handles will simply bend or become damaged.  Think of the sterling silver portion of the handle as the paint on a wall.  Without the studs and wall board (or plaster and lathe depending on your house) the wall has no structural integrity and will fall down.

That is why, as Elizabeth noted in the comments of part 1, her Grande Renaissance knife handles do not have the same pierce work as the rest of the handles in the set.  The solid interior needs to remain hidden.  Likewise, I can’t think of a ‘modern’ silverware pattern that uses rivets through the handle and tang (as shown in the photo of the kitchen knife) to secure the pieces together.  There is no particular engineering reason for this, but it is not the most aesthetically pleasing option.

So, the moral of the story is almost all* sterling silver knife handles are not solid, but you have not been scammed in any way.  The handes are a pretty coat covering a lot of necessary structural parts.


*There are a few exceptions to the rule…but if there weren’t exceptions silver would be far too uncomplicated!


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4 thoughts on “Sterling Silver Knife Handles | Part 3 An elegant compromise

  1. HeidiNo Gravatar

    Fantastic post. I learned a lot! Thanks for putting this together. I love expanding my knowledge. Now off to photograph some 1820s sterling for my shop!

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