The terms goldsmith and silversmith are in most respects interchangeable, although until the eighteenth century a goldsmith might be someone whose business either wholly or partly involved banking. A silversmith might be a man who made things, or who specialised in one aspect of the craft, or he might be the head of a large workshop effectively managing a business, or he might run a retail shop. Sadly, with very few exceptions, the big name silversmiths are now little known outside those who make a special study of silver. But it was not always so. Until a distinction was drawn between the fine and decorative arts, a silversmith could be considered the equal of any painter or sculptor – and indeed may have been trained in any of these disciplines. There are few monographs devoted to an individual goldsmith, but research for exhibition catalogues and books, particularly those that detail marks, is steadily expanding our knowledge of the lives of many of the most [Read More]


Church and other sacred silver

Gold and silver are ’clean’ metals and more durable than glass, thus highly suitable materials for the utensils required by both the Christian and Jewish religions. However the cost was prohibitive for some churches, chapels and synagogues, and pewter was used to a lesser extent. The large quantity of sacred vessels accumulated by many cathedrals and parish churches is usually the result of gifts. Sometimes secular objects were donated and used in place of the chalices, flagons and plates required for the sacrament of communion. Following the Reformation, there was a systematic programme to remake liturgical silver in the forms required under Protestant rites and there was a further wave of production in the mid-nineteenth century, to equip newly built churches and those being restored at that time. Religious plate is an important source of commissions for contemporary silversmiths. Although church plate has suffered heavily from the depredations of war and political upheavals, surviving early pieces are a major source of information, through their [Read More]

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What you eat influences the utensils you need, and availability of ingredients influences cooking. Food is as subject to fashion and finance as any of the creative arts. It is also subject to etiquette, and how food is served and eaten changes between generations, seasons and regions. To understand how a table was laid, we must look at paintings and photographs. To know what utensils were called, we must look at inventories and invoices. To know about food we read ’receipts’, or recipes, and housekeeping manuals. Until the eighteenth century, when stiff competition arrived in the form of porcelain, at either formal banquet or intimate supper, silver or pewter were the favoured materials for the gentry, wood and pottery for the less wealthy. Think about a few items that we regard as commonplace today: teapots, coffee pots, sauceboats, salt cellars. When did we first start to use them and why? What is a posset pot, an epergne, or a mazarine? Why were turtle-shaped soup [Read More]


Making silver

Many of the techniques used in working gold and silver have remained unchanged for centuries. However craftsmen adapt new equipment that may originally have been developed for other disciplines, and this can affect both the construction and decoration of their work. At any given time craftsmen in a particular town or country were particularly skilled in one technique, whether engraving, chasing or casting. Financial and political considerations also played their part in determining centres of excellence. In the past tuition was through the apprentice system. Although this still operates to a certain extent, basic teaching is now given on a range of courses at colleges for those wishing to do both professional and amateur silversmithing. Most courses run tuition in other metals and jewellery alongside silver, and some institutions hold courses on specific techniques. Most general books on silver have a glossary of terms that explain the differences between the principal techniques of raising, casting, spinning, soldering, chasing and engraving, for example. There are [Read More]

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Contemporary silver

Silver is at the cutting edge of contemporary design and is thriving. Silversmiths are developing new techniques and the ’look’ of silver is as exciting now as it must have been at any of the highpoints of the past. With the closure of many manufacturing firms in recent years, attention is focussing on individual craftsmen and women and limited production ranges in small workshops. A potential purchaser has a huge choice of objects with a variety of forms, functions and finishes, to choose from. You can commission a piece or buy silver from shops or at fairs. View list of relevant Silver Studies articles

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Fortunately it has long been the custom to engrave silver with armorials and inscriptions, and because of the inherent value of the material, it is usually recorded in household inventories and accounts of the wealthier households and institutions. To be able to trace the history of an object through armorials, find a portrait of the owner, visit his or her house, read their letters and diaries, and trace their possessions in their archives – to be able to visualise where and how their epergne, teapot or snuffbox, was used – is a fascinating pursuit. And rarely, oh so rarely, there exists a painting showing an owner with a piece of plate that survives today. View list of relevant Silver Studies articles



The word ’design’ has in one sense been hijacked by devotees of the twentieth century. Design, style and taste should not be confused. Good design is one of the components to look for when judging the quality of a piece. The word is used loosely to mean the best of any period: form and ornament that have lasting influence, that is innovative, technically demanding and visually exciting. Silversmiths create their own designs, or employ draughtsmen, or work to the designs of sculptors, painters and architects. In the past many painters trained as goldsmiths or were the sons of goldsmiths. Printed sheets and books of ornament, and designs for metalwork, have circulated since at least the sixteenth century. Today craftsmen often use a computer, rather than a pencil, to formulate their ideas. The work of leading designers is plagiarised and the word ’design’ is now often used to mean ’style’. For example, A. W. N. Pugin designed silver in gothic-revival style and during his lifetime [Read More]


Use it . . . ?

It’s sleek, it’s chic, and it looks good anywhere. Yes . . . use it! Eat with it, put spoons and forks in the dishwasher (new dishwashers are far more silver-friendly than old ones) or just wash it. Put paperclips in a silver bowl (but not rubber bands), keep your pills in a silver box, your photos in a silver frame, serve gravy in a silver sauceboat – show it off! Naturally if you are fortunate enough to own a masterpiece of silver or gold it would be irresponsible to use it, for like many things silver gets worn; and you shouldn’t put really good, old, silver in the dishwasher. But don’t be frightened of it; the vast majority of extant silver has been in constant use for many years, sometimes hundreds of years, and is far from being in mint condition – it’s probably been mended, had dents knocked out, been re-polished. It is always difficult, however, to be precise about which silver [Read More]

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Where to see silver

The best way to learn about silver is to see it and, most importantly, to handle it. It is always possible to handle items for sale at fairs, auction houses and with dealers. See News and events and Where to buy silver. See links for a selection of museums with good collections of silver, but there are of course hundreds of others. Some museums occasionally hold sessions when it is possible to learn through handling. There are usually a small number of special exhibitions each year devoted to silver, in addition to which silver regularly features as part of exhibitions with a broad-ranging title or related subject matter. See News and events. View list of relevant Silver Studies articles

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Books on silver

Our knowledge of silver has been transformed over the past 50 years as scholars and collectors build on the work of their predecessors and break new ground in attempting to understand our subject. Their work is published in general and specialist books, in exhibition catalogues and in catalogues of collections worldwide – and, of course, in our Journal. Most books contain bibliographies of earlier publications. The Society has recently given financial contributions to aid publication of the following titles: Christopher Hartop (ed), East Anglian Silver 1550-1750, 2004 Nicole Cartier, Les Orfèvres de Lille, 2006 Timothy Schroder, Catalogue of silver in the Ashmolean Museum (2009) See Grants NOTE: Most issues of the Journal have a list of recently published books, articles and exhibition catalogues.

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