Sterling silver: Wikis

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Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925.

Pair of sterling silver forks

Fine silver (99.9% pure) is generally too soft for producing large functional objects; therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength, while at the same time preserving the ductility and beauty of the precious metal. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intent to improve various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity, eliminating firescale, and increasing resistance to tarnish. These replacement metals include germanium, zinc and platinum, as well as a variety of other additives, including silicon and boron. A number of alloys, such as Argentium sterling silver have appeared in recent years, formulated to lessen firescale or to inhibit tarnish, and this has sparked heavy competition among the various manufacturers, who are rushing to make claims of having the best formulation. However, no one alloy has emerged to replace copper as the industry standard, and alloy development is a very active area.

Contents

Origin of the alloy metal

Although the origin of the word "sterling" is controversial, there is general agreement that the sterling alloy originated in continental Europe, and was being used for commerce as early as the 12th century in the area that is now northern Germany.

Etymology

The earliest attestation of the term is in Old French form esterlin, in a charter of the abbey of Préaux, dating to either 1085 or 1104. A 13th century document, Ordericus Vitalis has the Latin forms libræ sterilensium and libræ sterilensis monetæ. The word in origin refers to the newly introduced Norman silver penny.

The most plausible etymology is derivation from a late Old English *steorling "[coin] with a star", as some early Norman pennies were imprinted with a small star.

There are a number of obsolete hypotheses. One suggests a connection with starling, and another supposed connection with easterling, a term for natives of the Baltic or the Hanse towns of eastern Germany. This etymology is itself medieval, suggested by Walter de Pinchebek (ca. 1300) with the explanation that the coin was originally made by moneyers from that region (OED).

A century of dining regalia: the silver craze of 1840 to 1940

19th-century Tiffany & Co. Pitcher. Circa 1871. Pitcher has paneled sides, and repousse design with shells, scrolls and flowers. Top edge is repousse arrowhead leaf design.

From about 1840 to somewhere around 1940 in the United States and Europe, sterling silver flatware became de rigueur when setting a proper table. In fact, there was a marked increase in the number of silver companies that emerged during that period.

The height of the silver craze was during the 50-year period from 1870 to 1920. Flatware lines during this period sometimes included up to 100 different types of pieces. In conjunction with this, the dinner went from three courses to sometimes ten or more. There was a soup course, a salad course, a fruit course, a cheese course, an antipasto course, a fish course, the main course and a pastry or dessert course.

Individual eating implements often included forks (dinner fork, place fork, salad fork, pastry fork, shrimp or cocktail fork), spoons (teaspoon, coffee spoon, demitasse spoon, bouillon spoon, gumbo soup spoon, iced tea spoon) and knives (dinner knife, place knife, butter spreader, fruit knife, cheese knife). This was especially true during the Victorian time period, when etiquette dictated that nothing should be touched with one's fingers.

Serving pieces were often elaborately decorated and pierced and embellished with ivory, and could include any or all of the following: carving knife and fork, salad knife and fork, cold meat fork, punch ladle, soup ladle, gravy ladle, casserole serving spoon, berry spoon, lasagna server, macaroni server, asparagus server, cucumber server, tomato server, olive spoon, cheese scoop, fish knife and fork, pastry server, petit four server, cake knife, bon bon spoon, tiny salt spoon, sugar sifter or caster and crumb remover with brush.

Flatware sets were often accompanied by tea services, hot water pots, chocolate pots, trays and salvers, goblets, demitasse cups and saucers, liqueur cups, bouillon cups, egg cups, sterling plates, napkin rings, water and wine pitchers and coasters, candelabra and even elaborate centerpieces.

In fact, the craze with sterling even extended to business (sterling page clips, mechanical pencils, letter openers, calling card boxes, cigarette cases), to the boudoir (sterling dresser trays, mirrors, hair and suit brushes, pill bottles, manicure sets, shoehorns, perfume bottles, powder bottles, hair clips) and even to children (cups, flatware, rattles, christening sets).

A number of factors converged to make sterling fall out of favor around the time of World War II. The cost of labor rose (sterling pieces were all still mostly hand-made, with only the basics being done by machine). Only the wealthy could afford the large number of servants required for fancy dining with ten courses. And changes in aesthetics resulted in people desiring simpler dinnerware that was easier to clean.

Hallmarks

Over the years, most countries in the world have developed their own systems of hallmarking silver. The purpose of hallmark application is manifold:

  • To indicate the purity of the silver alloy used in the manufacture or hand-crafting of the piece.
  • To identify the silversmith or company that made the piece.
  • To note the date and/or location of the manufacture.

Miscellaneous

In addition to the uses of sterling silver mentioned above, there are some little known uses of sterling:

  • Medical instruments: Evidence of silver and/or silver-alloy surgical and medical instruments has been found in civilisations as early as Ur, Hellenistic-era Egypt and Rome, and their use continued until largely replaced in Western countries in the mid to late 20th century by cheaper, disposable plastic items. Its natural malleability is an obvious physical advantage, but it also exhibits medically-specific utility, including the fact that it is naturally aseptic, and, in respect of modern medical practices, it is resistant to antiseptics, heat sterilisation and body fluids.
  • Musical instruments: Due to sterling silver having a special sound character, some brasswind instrument manufacturers use 92.5% sterling silver as the material for making their instruments, including the flute and saxophones. For example, some leading saxophone manufactuers such as Selmer and Yanagisawa have crafted some of their saxophones from sterling silver, which they believe will make the instruments more resonant and colorful in timbre.

Tarnish and corrosion

As the purity of the silver decreases, the problem of corrosion or tarnishing increases.

Chemically, silver is not very reactive — it does not react with oxygen or water at ordinary temperatures, so does not easily form a silver oxide. However, other metals in the alloy, usually copper, may react with oxygen in the air.

The black silver sulfide (Ag2S) is among the most insoluble salts in aqueous solution, a property that is exploited for separating silver ions from other positive ions.

Sodium chloride (NaCl) or common table salt is known to corrode silver-copper alloy, typically seen in silver salt shakers where corrosion appears around the holes in the top.

Several products have been developed for the purpose of polishing silver that serve to remove sulfur from the metal without damaging or warping it. Because harsh polishing and buffing can permanently damage and devalue a piece of antique silver, valuable items are typically hand-polished to preserve the unique patinas of older pieces. Techniques such as wheel polishing, which are typically performed by professional jewelers or silver repair companies, are reserved for extreme tarnish or corrosion. See also Tarnish, Removal.

References

  • All About Antique Silver with International Hallmarks, 2nd printing (2007), by Diana Sanders Cinamon, AAA Publishing, San Bernardino, CA.
  • Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, by lexicographer Eric Partridge.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner.
  • Silver in America, 1840–1940: A Century of Splendor, third edition (1997), by Charles L. Venable; Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY.
  • Tiffany Silver Flatware, 1845–1905: When Dining Was an Art, by William P. Hood, Jr.; 1999; published by the Antique Collectors Club Ltd., Suffolk, England.
  • The Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers, revised fourth edition (1998), by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Judy Redfield; Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA.
  • The Book of Old Silver, English – American – Foreign, With All Available Hallmarks Including Sheffield Plate Marks, by Seymour B. Wyler; 1937; Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, NY.
  • International Hallmarks on Silver Collected by Tardy, 5th English Language reprint (2000); original publication date unknown, date of first softcover publication 1985; author unknown; publisher unknown.

External links

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