Nickel Silver | Silver Substitutes Have Many Names

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nickel silver ladle

A graceful ladle. Sadly, it is not quite what it seems.

At a presentation I gave to a group in DC a few weeks ago one of the topics we spent quite a lot of time discussing was silver substitutes. The subject was brought up by an audience member asking me to identify a piece. When I examined the marks, it was clearly marked ‘NS’ or nickel silver.

Wow, did that ever open up a can of worms!  The owner of the piece was extremely upset to learn that it was not what they thought it was.  It’s a similar problem to getting taken in by silver-plate marks or pseudo-marks that look like English hallmarks.  And no one likes to feel they have been taken.

What is nickel silver?

Strictly speaking, nickel silver is one (of many) names for a white metal alloy that is not infrequently used in hollowware and flatware, just like silver-plate and real deal silver. Nickel silver also often forms the base of a piece of hollowware that is then finished with silver-plating…hence EPNS or Electro Plate Nickel Silver.

Silver substitutes have been around for many centuries.  It was created/discovered in by metallurgists in 16th century China. The alloy was not replicated in Europe until the late 18th century by metallurgists in Germany . The secret ingredients of nickel silver are copper, nickel, and zinc.  Please note the absence of any actual silver.

Why make it?

Genuine silver (our traditional silver/copper mix) is expensive!  It doesn’t matter what period in history you are looking at, purchasing hollowware and flatware made of silver has always been a pricey prospect.  That, of course, is part of the point. Genuine silver in your home…on your table and shown to guests, perhaps gifted to a select few…is proof of your social and economic status.

Along comes the Industrial Revolution and an expanding middle class had some extra disposable income.  Silver-plate was a way to cater to Champagne tastes on a beer budget. (I deliberately say originally because silver-plate became an art in its own right.)

Silver substitutes follow that pattern.  I don’t believe that the timing of the ‘re-discovery’ of nickel silver in Germany is an accident.  As the Industrial Revolution progressed, consumerism appeared in its modern form and budding capitalists everywhere were eager to part people from their money.  The alloy made an attractive white metal that could be formed into any hollowware or flatware.  Why not sell it to those seeking to join the silver trend?

Implications for modern consumers…that means you!

As long as you understand that nickel silver (or any of the other names it goes under) does not contain any silver at all, you are fine.  Please, don’t purchase a piece and then be surprised that your ‘silver’ isn’t actually made of genuine silver.  White metal has its own virtues, and many a pretty piece has been made from it, but (at the risk of being tedious) it is not made of silver.

nickel silver mark

Groups of marks like this are often called ‘hallmarks’, but just having a bunch of marks doesn’t mean anything. This piece has the tell-tale NS (far right). That, along with the absence of any other sterling or silver marks, tells the whole story.

Caveat Emptor |A list of synonyms

  • Alpacca silver
  • Albata
  • Alaska silver
  • Argentan
  • Brazil silver
  • Nickel silver
  • Paktong
  • German silver (not to be confused with silver of the .800 standard that is the German standard of Fineness for ‘genuine’ silver. See the Definition of Silver for more information.)

I’ll repeat advice I’ve given before. If you don’t understand the marks, ask specific questions and look things up.  In particular, when an item is really expensive, and you aren’t sure, and can’t find the answer, consult with an expert.

PS

Do you know a bargain-hunter?  Well, bargains are only bargains if you know what you are buying is under-priced. Send this post to your friend and save them some heart-ache (maybe some money too).

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