Cunard Cup | Boston Knows How to Say Thank You

Even in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean, it seems as though there are interesting bits of silver to bump into.  This summer I have had the incredible pleasure of travelling to and from England aboard the Cunard lines flagship Queen Mary 2.  While wandering around the ship one day, my eye lit upon The Cunard Cup.

Cunard Cup Boston

In all it’s glory aboard the Queen Mary 2 – The Cunard Cup or Boston Cup.

The Cunard Cup aka The Boston Cup

Inside a glass case is this simply amazing commemorative cup. I’d estimate that it is 30-34 inches high and perhaps 16-18 inches across at the widest point. Adorned with sea creatures and shells, it is a stunning piece of silver work. The only other cup I can think of that comes close to this one in terms of size is the Stanley Cup.

This cup was given to Samuel Cunard, founder of Cunard lines, by the people of Boston in 1840. It commemorates the arrival of the Britannia to Boston and the city’s gratitude at being chosen as the US seaport for Cunard’s transatlantic service.

In addition to the cup itself, apparently Mr. Cunard received 1,873 invitations to dinner — enough to dine out for over 5 years. Hmm…I wonder how may he accepted and who wrote the polite notes of regret to those he could not attend?

Realism before it’s time

Cunard Cup Boston

The makers mark says “Manufactured by Lows, Ball & Co.”.

Unfortunately, it was in an indoor location with no natural light and behind glass under harsh spotlights. That combined with the motion of the ship made it really difficult to photograph. I’ve done my best…but these shots only give you an inkling of it’s glory.

Happily, despite being behind glass, the maker’s mark is clearly visible. Lows, Ball and Co. made it. John J. Low was a Boston silversmith active in the 1820′s and the company he left behind went through a number of name changes…we know it best as Shreve, Crump & Low.

Look at the realism and details around that makers mark; the finish on the shells and the wavy ruffles on the overhanging rim. It’s worth keeping in mind that realism in painting didn’t really take off until the 1850′s and the Aesthetic era in silver is generally dated as being from 1870-1900. The cup was really ahead of it’s time.

Cunard Cup Boston Cup

Seashells, starfish and the little grainy bits that suggest sand. It’s very reminiscent of Gorham’s Narragansett and marine patterns.

Cunard Cup Boston

Dolphins with their chins resting on clam shells are the handles.

According to Cunard lore, the cup once had a lid, but no one knows what happened to it. Once I learned that, I immediately wished Cunard could be persuaded to use it as the vase that holds the huge arrangement of flowers in the main lobby of the ship. I expect my family is quite glad I didn’t take that up with any of the officers or crew.

PS

Thanks to everyone who wrote in asking where I’ve been.  Unexpectedly, we had to do some things to the house – keeping it full of noise, chaos, and dust for several months (which I find really difficult to write in) and then we went away and I totally unplugged.  It was wonderful.  We had a great time, including being able to see my Grandma (she who helped inspire Silver Magpies) and celebrate her 105th birthday!

Cunard Queen Mary 2

The Queen Mary 2 sign and just a hint of the famous red funnel.

Guilloche Silver | The Many Colors of Silver

Guilloche silver refers to a piece of silver that has been decorated with a precise pattern of tiny lines. Usually the pattern is a repetitive one, which forms an almost holographic effect as you look at it from different angles. Guilloche can be left as a simple engraving on silver, or it can be decorated with an additional layer of enamel. Most often when people refer to guilloche, they mean the enameled version.

guilloche silver

An enamel guilloche spoon by the Norwegian firm founded by Jacob Tostrup.

Guilloche Silver

Enamel guilloche silver is eye-catching and beautiful. Most commonly done in jewel tones of blue, green, red and yellow. Art historians tell us that the technique originated in Ancient Egypt and then made a circuitous path through the Byzantine Empire, Cyprus, China, and eventually into Czarist Russia.

Russia provides us with some of the most famous examples of enamel guilloche silver. Carl Faberge, maker of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs used guilloche to spectacular effect.  

Speaking of Faberge eggs, did you see this story today about someone who found one and nearly MELTED it for scrap! I tell my clients all the time, find out what it is before you decide what to do with it.

guilloche silver

Can you see the beautiful chevron pattern?

My favorite guilloche silver is mid-century Scandinavian. The spoon in these photos is a 1960s piece by the Norwegian firm founded by Jacob Tostrup in 1832. Tostrup and other Scandinavian firms made lots of different guilloche flatware sets in the 1950s and 60s.  Sets of demitasse spoons seemed to be a particular favorite.

If you look closely at the photo to the left you can see the chevron pattern formed by the terminal end of the spoon is repeated in the enamel guilloche pattern.

That shade of blue just speaks to me.  It makes me think of blue skies and the ocean, which is a nice thought on the first day of spring.

Fava Bean and Mint Dip (click for printer-friendly version)

guilloche silver

Fava and mint dip…just the thing to perk up your taste buds after a long winter.

Speaking of spring days (although I’m told we are expecting more snow next week) I was delighted to see fava beans in the market.  So, I thought I’d share this recipe as it is a traditional spring favorite in the Magpies household. Favas are a bit labour intensive, but well worth the effort once you get a taste.

  • 2 lbs. fava beans
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2-3 mint leaves

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. While the water is warming, shell the fava beans. I think of this as taking the favas out of their winter jacket. The inside of a fresh fava bean shell is lined with the fuzzy white coating. Each fava shell will contain anywhere from 3-6 fava beans. Look for plump, bright green favas.

Once the water is boiling and all the favas are shelled. Toss them in the water for 3-5 minutes. Start testing at the 3 minute mark. You want the beans to yield easily to a toothpick pushed through one. Once done, scoop the favas out of the boiling water and place them in a bowl full of cold water to stop them cooking.

Next, you need to shell the favas again. If the outer shell was their winter parka, once they are cooked you need to get them out of their winter underwear. Using your thumb and fingers, pop the favas out of the opaque light green shell they are in. You’ll know you are successful when two bright green halves of the fava appear.

Toss all your fava halves, the oil, salt and mint into a food processor or blender. Turn on and process until the texture appeals to you.  I like mine mostly smooth but still with a hint of texture. I’ve seen this dip as rough chunks and as perfectly smooth puree. It’s all up to you.  Serve with toast or crackers.

PS

The recipe is infinitely scalable and you can also make many substitutions. No mint, try rosemary.  Use less salt, or more.  Want a different oil, try hazelnut oil.  It’s virtually impossible to go wrong.  Just taste as you go along and enjoy.

Coin Silver | The Coins that Made Coin Silver

Last week, I participated in Colonial Day at my son’s school. I doubt it will surprise you to learn that I presented a segment on colonial silver. As I was musing on silver in colonial times, and then more specifically on the term coin silver, it came to me that in all the time I’ve seen coin silver in museums and handled it in real life, I’d never really given much thought to the actual coins of which it is made. And it is, after all, called coin silver for a very literal reason.

coin silver

From left to right – 1740 Georgian halfpenny, 1719 Spanish half-real, modern American dime.

Coin Silver

Just in case you did not know this before, virtually all the silver produced in colonial America is coin silver. On the face of it, the reason is quite simple. To the undoubted dismay of the colonists who were hoping for easy riches, there was no source of silver in the colonies. In the territories of Central and South America claimed by the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, there were sources of silver (and gold). But in the thirteen colonies of North America there were none. So, then, how do you make silver objects when there is no easily available source of silver? The answer is silver coins.

Silver Coins in Colonial America

Instead of droning on about coin silver and silver coins in the abstract, it occurred to me that actually showing the kids some genuine coins of the era might be interesting. This notion sent me down a fascinating little research rabbit hole to see what coins were in circulation back then.

coin silver

A Spanish half-real from 1719 weighs about 1 gram. It took a lot more to make a single coin silver spoon.

Hard currency, specifically coins, in Colonial America bears little resemblance to the orderly system we know today. Coins came from many sources. The notion of a single accepted currency — today’s US dollars and cents — did not apply back then. English coins were in circulation, but so were Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French ones. Eventually, individual colonies began to issue their own currencies. So a mish-mash of coins were all acceptable as payment for goods and services.

Even with many types of coins in circulation, coinage was still not plentiful. Money was literally in short supply and defining the value of money in Colonial times was a tricky thing. Barter and trade were acceptable forms of payment.

Armed with the knowledge that a wide variety of coins would have been in use, off I trotted to a numismatist to acquire some suitable samples. Eventually I ended up with an English George II silver halfpenny minted in 1740 and a Spanish half-real from 1719 when Felipe V was on the throne.

Once I got them home and out of their protective packaging, my appreciation/amazement of colonial silver took another leap. These coins are tiny.

The value of a spoon

The acquisition of a silver spoon by a colonist represented a significant purchase. Let me put it in perspective. A nice tablespoon weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 grams. I have a number of tablespoons dating from 1720 to 1780 and they all weigh in around this mark. So regardless of how much one had to pay the silversmith for his labor and expertise, a silver spoon ‘cost’ at least 70 grams of silver coins.

coin silver

This 1740 Georgian half-penny weights just 0.5 gram!

Teeny, tiny coins do not weigh very much. The Georgian halfpenny tips the scale at 0.5 grams. The Spanish half-real weighs in at a whopping 1 gram. It took 140 halfpennies or 70 half-real coins to make a single spoon. And everything I’ve read has emphasized just how scarce any coinage was.

The raw materials cost of some of the large pieces by Colonial silversmiths Hull, Coney, or Dummer (to name by a few) must have been staggering.  By way of comparison, a modern dime weighs 2.3 grams on my scales.

It certainly made an impression on the kids who had a chance to compare the spoon they each held to the coins as they were passed around.

PS

It’s worth repeating that passing over coin silver because it’s not ‘real silver’ is a great shame.  The actual difference in silver between coin and sterling is about 25/1000ths, barely any difference at all.  What coin silver represents in American history is astonishing.

PPS

The Meyer Lemon, Prosecco, and Limoncello jam recipe from the last post about Georgian Berry Spoons is now available.  Scroll down the the bottom of that post to access the recipe.  Thanks to everyone who emailed me!  I was flattered to see how many of you were interested.

Georgian Berry Spoons | Victorian Update of an Old Classic

The first time I saw Georgian berry spoons, I remember taking a good look at one, flipping it over to look at the marks, and then staring at it in utter incomprehension. It looked so…strange. What was it? Was there a whole sub-genre of Georgian silver I’d never heard of?!?

Georgian berry spoons - bowl details

Details of the bowls of two Georgian berry spoons.

Georgian Berry Spoons

To set the stage, remember that Georgian silver is generally noted for its simple silhouette and restrained design. It’s not ‘frilly’ silver. 

Berry spoons totally blow that low-key aesthetic out of the water.

For those of you who have not run across one, or realized what you were seeing at the time, Georgian berry spoons are literally Georgian silver spoons, of any size, from teaspoons up to large serving pieces, with ornate repousse work done in the bowl and almost always elaborate etching and design on the handle. Frequently, the bowl has been goldwashed — for good measure, I suppose.

Georgian berry spoons - original

An unaltered Georgian teaspoon. Note the very simple, unadorned silhouette.

The best thinking on these fascinating hybrids is that they are a Victorian update of Georgian silver. It’s another form of recycling silver. In this case, though, the original piece has not been melted down, but instead, re-worked.

The bowls of these spoons are filled with fruit, not just berries, as the name implies…pears, melons, and other fruit also appear. The edges of the bowls are ruffled and scalloped. The handles are chased and engraved. And, finally, what Victorian-era lily would be complete without a dollop of gilding?

How to use it?

The spoons are showy pieces. As they very rarely are sold in ‘sets’…and by sets I mean multiple pieces with the identical pattern…they are best used as solo stars.

Georgian berry spoon - complete

This berry spoon makes a beautiful serving piece for my Meyer lemon, Prosecco, and Limoncello jam.

The two spoons shown in my photos are teaspoons, and they seemed a natural fit for use as serving spoons for a Meyer Lemon, Prosecco, and Limoncello jam I made a few weeks ago. It just wouldn’t be winter if I wasn’t having my annual fit of lemon mania!

PS

If you would like the recipe for the jam…it’s a bit long…drop me an email or a note in the comments and I’ll get it to you. I think it’s worth the effort as it tastes of sunshine, which I’m desperately craving this long, dreary winter.

Update

Here is the recipe for the Meyer Lemon, Prosecco, and Limoncello Jam.  Just click to get to a printer-friendly version.

Recycling silver | Why is there so little very old silver?

Have you ever wondered why there is so little really old silverware?*  For the purpose of this post, by really old, I mean older than 1600.  Apparently it has been bothering at least a few of my blog readers and shop clients, because I’ve have a number of questions about the existence and relative scarcity of really old silverware in the last two months.  Does really old silver exist? Absolutely, but not in huge quantities. Why is that? Well, my short answer is twofold: original supply and recycling silver.

recycling silver

Recycling silver is relatively easy. Here are some silver scraps being melted in the crucible under a torch.

Durable silver

Silver is durable stuff.  If you were trying to save the family silver from various invaders and internal strife, your best course of action for most of history has been to toss it in a bag, dig a big hole, then fill it in.  If you were lucky enough to avoid being skewered by the Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Roundheads, Cavaliers, garden variety robbers, etc. you could go back at your leisure to retrieve it.  Unlike wood or textiles, your silver would be safe damp or underground because it does not rot or decompose.

Once silver has been forged into a piece of silverware, there are only a very limited number of ways to make it vanish.  Even if it breaks, it can be repaired.  Spending a thousand years underground is a not a problem.

Many examples of really ancient silverware in museum collections spent millennia buried underground.  An astonishing proportion of those finds have been made accidentally by farmers and construction workers.  For one reason or another, the original owner…or at least hider…never came back to retrieve their hoard.

Going back to the original question, then, despite silver’s durability, why are old pieces so scarce?  The first part of the answer is that in ye olden days, a lot less of it was made, as compared to the Victorian era.  As we’ve discussed before, only a select few had the status and the means to acquire silverware.  So the pool of potential surviving pieces is much smaller than in later eras when much more silver was made to satisfy a larger demand.

Recycling silver

recycling silver

Spot a Viking dragon prow on the horizon? Time to dig a big hole and hide your worldly possessions.

But that small original pool was shrunk even further because recycling silver is relatively easy.  If a piece of silver wasn’t to your taste (or didn’t serve the function you needed), all you had to do was take it to a silversmith and have it remade.  Surely this is what has happened to many a plundered piece of silver.

Take, for example, the early Viking raids on Northern England.  The pagan Vikings were particularly fond of raiding the rich and undefended Christian monasteries.  But almost certainly for the Vikings, the value of the loot was the silver rather than the form it took.  And once these items returned to Scandinavia, they were melted down and remade into pieces that reflected the fashion and tastes of their new owners.

Coming closer to our own age in history, Thomas Jefferson — President, political philosopher, architect, gardener, writer extraordinaire — left us a lovely record of recycling silver.  His instructions to silversmith John Letelier in 1810 resulted in the creation of the Jefferson cup by melting down existing pieces of silver.

In the excellent book American Silver, Graham Hood discussed silver recycling in colonial America.  Silverware and hollowware were often remade as fashions changed and wealthy men wanted their personal silver to reflect modern styles and their personal taste — rather than someone else’s choices.

The Great Silver Melt

The high value point hit by the commodities market a couple of years ago represents a tidal wave demand for recycling silver.  Tons and tons of silverware was melted into scrap…it’s going somewhere eventually.  The people who bought it are going to want to sell it and make a profit.  And here’s a thought: perhaps for the first time recycling silver won’t result in more silverware.  I suspect a lot of it will end up as components for use in various high tech industries.

PS

A further thought about last week’s post on English Silver in the Kremlin.  This relatively short supply of really old silver makes that amazing collection in the Kremlin all the more important.

*Nearly twenty years removed from my last academic thesis, you are going to have to forgive me, but I still feel compelled to put some boundaries around my remarks.  I’m going to confine my remarks specifically to English and American silver as it is what I know the best.  There are going to be some sweeping generalizations…but that’s because it is a blog post and not my Ph.D.