How Much Silver Is in Your Silverware?
Where's the Silver?
Today, the word silverware is a very generic term which can refer to a multitude of items ranging from flatware and cutlery (forks, knives & spoons) to candlesticks, serving platters, tea services, and even jewelry and sports trophies. But this wasn't always the case, since historically silverware referred specifically to items made from (what else) silver. Over the years, the amount of silver used has changed (decreased) so although your dinner service may still be referred to as silverware, how much silver is really in your silverware?
Before you go any further...
What's your silverware made of ?
Why is silverware so popular ?
The first references to sterling silver occur in 12th Century England, and it was probably not long after that flatware and cutlery were being fashioned out of the same quality silver that was being circulated for currency. For centuries only members of the royal families were wealthy enough to afford such luxury items.
However, the Industrial Revolution saw personal fortunes created virtually overnight and the nobles were now joined by an increasingly wealthy upper middle class. Starting around 1840, in Victorian England, silverware became increasingly popular as this newly rich middle class became eager to display their new wealth. Also during the Victorian Era, new standards of etiquette emerged that dictated food should no longer be touched by ones fingers. The combination of these two events resulted in sterling silver flatware becoming the standard in both Europe and America.
As the amount of middle classes' disposable income increased, they sought to further enhance their social status which led to the creation of utensils to fulfill every imaginable use. During the peak of silverware's popularity (1870 - 1920), the previously simple 3 course dinner evolved into social events of 10 or more courses. Typical dining services now included such specialty items as the bouillon spoon, gumbo soup spoon, salad fork, butter spreader, fruit knife, cheese knife, shrimp or cocktail fork, dinner fork, dinner knife, place fork, place knife, teaspoon, pastry fork, coffee spoon, demitasse spoon, and iced teaspoon, to name just a few.
In addition to the growing number of utensils required, serving pieces (carving knives and forks, ladles, serving trays, etc) were also being made more elaborate, sometimes being enhanced with ornately carved ivory.
Prior to the start of WW II, several events contributed to the decline of sterling silver's popularity, the most significant of which was the Great Depression. Sterling silver items were still mostly hand made, with only the rough blanks being stamped by machine. The increase in labor costs also affected the ability of the wealthy to employ the large number of servants required for 10 course dinners. Finally, ornate silver requires hand polishing in order to maintain the integrity of the intricate designs, so popular tastes slowly shifted to flatware that was simpler and easier to clean.
Sterling Silver - The Good Stuff
As the name implies, silverware was originally, and obviously, made from silver. Unfortunately, fine (99.9% pure) silver is a very soft and malleable metal so it was necessary to blend it with other metals to enhance its strength. Since there were no standards or regulations, the quality and consistency of the alloys varied from location to location, and were also highly dependent on the honesty of the silversmith.
In the early 12th Century, in the 'Easterling' region of Germany, a particularly durable silver alloy was developed which was adopted as the local currency. This alloy was later adopted throughout England and eventually became known as sterling silver.
Sterling Silver contains (by law) 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of other metals - typically copper. Another way to describe the silver content of an alloy is by its millesimal fineness (the parts per thousand of pure metal, by mass, in an alloy). For sterling silver this is a minimum of 925.
Recently, in order to enhance specific properties of such as tarnish resistance, other metals (such as zinc and platinum) have been used to alloy silver, but none have been able to replace copper as the standard.
The bottom line is that if you're fortunate enough to have inherited, purchased (or even collect) sterling silver flatware, it contains at least 92.5% pure silver. So, as the price of silver goes up, so does the value of your flatware.
What do you think ?
Is it worth the effort to polish sterling silver utensils to use them only once or twice a year?
Silverplate - Not so simple an answer
For silver plate, the answer actually depends more on when the cutlery was made since the plating process changed. Silver plating refers to any process in which a base metal (typically nickel, copper, or zinc) is coated with a layer of silver. Over time, as a matter of economics, improvements in the plating process have resulted in reductions in the thickness and purity of the silver layer.
The original plating process was discovered in 1743 by Thomas Boulsover of the Sheffield Cutlers Company (thank you Wikipedia) when he accidentally overheated the handle for a decorative knife he was trying to repair. He observed that the silver and copper had melted and fused together into a composite, the two layers behaving as one.
Around 1770 the technique (known as the Sheffield Plating process) was later refined when the 'double sandwich' process was developed. The 'sandwiched' consisted of a copper core between two layers of silver, which were then heated and formed. This technique was especially useful for items such as cups and bowls that had a visible interior.
The Sheffield process continued until about 1840 when advances in chemistry and electricity resulted in the highly efficient electroplating process. The basic electroplating process is shown in the image above. Simply, a very thin layer (typically 35 microns) of one metal is deposited (or plated) onto another conductive, usually metal, material as an electrical current passes through them (the metal ions are physically transferred through an electrolyte solution which permits the flow of electricity - completing the circuit).
One benefit of electroplating is that the surface is made of pure (99.9%) silver, not sterling (92.5%) silver. Unfortunately, the silver layer itself is very thin, so the majority of the utensil is still composed of the cheaper core metal. Even though electroplating was much more cost effective than the Sheffield 'sandwich' process, the Sheffield method continued to be used for the next 100 years, typically for items which were subject to heavy wear (such as military uniform buttons and tankards).
The fact that multiple plating processes have been used concurrently only adds to the confusion. Fortunately, the fact that silver is much denser that the commonly used core metals (Cu, Ni, & Zn) makes is possible to approximate the silver content, especially in older (antique/vintage) pieces where a substantial quantity would have been used. Modern electroplating deposits such a thin film that the difference in density would be almost negligible.
Other Types of Silverware - No silver
Silverware has become such a generic term that it is very possible that the silverware you've purchased contains no silver at all.
Much of today's cutlery and flatware are typically manufactured using stainless steel (developed by Harry Brearly in Sheffield England in 1913). The most common varieties of stainless steel used in flatware are the 18/8 or 18/10 alloys (18/0 is also used but less common). The numbers refer to the composition of the steel alloy. The base metal is iron, and it is blended with 18% chromium (the first number) and 8% or 10% (the second number) nickle. Higher quality stainless steel flatware will be heavier than 'cheaper' versions.
Other materials from which flatware and cutlery has been made include gold (solid and plated), brass, and pewter, all of which obviously contain no silver.
Gold Plated Silverware
Gold plated flatware obviously contains no silver at all. So why do we still call it silverware?
Silverware, today, is a very generic term that includes all types of flatware and cutlery, including gold plated. So although the original meaning of silverware refers to all household items that were manufactured from sterling silver, today it is just as easily manufactured from gold.
Modern electroplaitng techniques transfer the gold atom by atom onto the cheaper metal core of the utensil, utilizing an electric current. Once
a sufficiently thick layer of pure gold is deposited, the finished product will display the same appearance and luster of solid gold, without the exhorbitant cost. You can estimate how thick the gold layer is by comparing the density of your flatware to the density of the core metal (provided you know what it is) and pure gold. Your flatware will fall samewhere in between, but most likely much closer to the density of the core metal (since it is much less expensive than pure gold).
Although not as popular, or widely available as the more traditional sterling silver flatware, gold plated flatware is commercially produced by Towle Silversmiths, Godinger, and Harchow, to name a few. So if you're silverware looks gold, don't worry, you can still call it silverware. And if you're looking for something a little more luxurious than sterling silver, gold plated silverware may be what you're looking for.