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ANTIQUES STYLE: Precious metals; Jeremy Thornton guides us through the history of silver production and explains why it has become a much-loved choice of collectors.

Byline: Jeremy Thornton

Luna or Diana was the name given to silver by medieval alchemists, and their symbol for the metal was a crescent moon.

When you look a well cared for silver salver, or at the body of a punch bowl you can see why the moon was associated with this precious metal. It is the whitest of metals with, I think, a perfect luminescent lustre, and with the exception of gold one of the most malleable.

These qualities has meant that silver has always been highly prized, and in English history during times of trouble, many have put their fortune into gold and silver, as it could be easily transported and melted down. Sterling silver is of course 92.5 per cent of pure silver to a copper alloy, but a higher standard known today as the Britannia Standard does exist at 95.8 per cent pure silver.

This higher standard is today fairly rare, but it has its roots in the history of the late 17th century, when for the period 1697 to 1720 it was the only legal standard allowed.

The reason for its introduction was that in late 17th century England there was no difference in the sterling silver used for coinage and that used for fashioning silver items.

Add to this the very high demand for silver cutlery, and other items to replace those melted down to finance the troops on both sides of the civil war, Parliament was finding it difficult to supply the Mint with enough silver for coinage.

Taxation had failed to deter the noble houses from having made impressive displays of decorative silver, so Parliament passed an act to bring in this higher standard, thereby making it more expensive.

All coinage in circulation was also recalled and re-minted into new money, with milled coins to prevent the practice of 'cutting coin'.

This fascinating period in English silver history came to an end in 1720, when the current sterling standard was reintroduced.

The history of silver and silver plate is, of course, intricately linked with Birmingham, and collecting in this fascinating area will quickly introduce you to some of the great figures of the city.

The role of the great Matthew Boulton, and the establishment of the Birmingham essay office in 1773, is perhaps best known, but the development by George Elkington of what we today call EPNS, is also a revealing story. EPNS should not be confused with Sheffield plate, which is basically a sandwich of copper fused between to layers of silver. This plate was accidentally discovered by Thomas Boulsover of Sheffield in the 1740s, and allowed most fine wares previously made of silver to be copied at about a fifth of the cost.

The process of producing silver styled items, at a reduced price, was taken a stage further by George Elkington.

He spent considerable time and effort studying methods of covering a metal with silver, and in 1840 in partnership with his cousin, took out the first patent for electroplating.

There has been some discussion, whether Thomas Prime in the same year had successfully demonstrated to scientists a plating process called 'magnetic plate'.

However Prime and his process were taken over by Elkington.

Demand for Elkington plate grew rapidly, and at the time of George's death in 1865 the firm employed more than 1,000, and had licensed their process to 30 other firms.

A great Birmingham invention, and business success, which is still commanding a strong following in the auction room, where Elkington epergnes and other items stand out as quality items and often sell for more than pounds 1,000.

Buying Tip

When looking to buy an item with distinct separate parts, perhaps a travelling case with silver topped bottles, always check the hallmarks match. This will reduce the prices, as the item will be considered by collectors to be incomplete.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 16, 2002
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