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A French Rococo silver tea and coffee service with spiral ribbed pyriform, tab feet; consisting of teapot, coffeepot (6556), creamer (6559), covered sugar bowl, chocolate pot with wood handle side.Crack open a container of cocoa mix today and what you have would be unrecognizable to centuries’ of hot chocolate lovers. And yes, centuries. Cocoa beans made the trip to Seville, Spain from Mexico in 1585, but that would have been unrecognizable to us, as it was not the cocoa powder we use (stripped of the rich cocoa butter) but something more akin to melting a chocolate bar and thinning it with cream. And then adding things like anise and chiles!

Naturally, it didn’t take long for something like an exotic, expensive drink to spread and the first chocolate factory was opened in London in 1657. On the Continent, chocolate drinking was pretty much exclusively reserved for aristocrats, but in England, where coffeehouses had opened only five years before, “chocolate houses” opened as well making the drink available to the middle class. (The English would also invent the process of solidifying chocolate.)

By the end of the 17th century, chiles were moving out of chocolate recipes and sugar was moving in in greater quantities, for, it’s posited, the very same reason chocolate became popular in the first place – scarcity equals exclusivity equals wealth equals status. Sugar, simply put, was a mark of prosperity and thus social standing.

It took roughly another hundred years, but by the end of the 1700s, chocolate had become something that would be at least a little more familiar to modern consumers. The processes of grinding the beans and integrating milk and sugar had been refined, but making chocolate was still an ordeal: the beans, which first had to be roasted and shelled, were crushed and then ground on a hot stone. Because of tastes and expenses, chocolate of the period was not nearly so sweet as modern chocolate and because of technological limitations it was not nearly so smooth either. People began molding chocolate in the 19th century.

Meanwhile however, drinking chocolate was the most common way to consume it and, as one would assume, with its associations with wealth and social standing, the drinking of chocolate (and coffee) required specialized pots, sets and cups. While the terms are now muddled, chocolate pots, coffeepots and teapots were distinctly different forms that were easily identified in the period. (All three are visible in the picture above with coffeepot, teapot, and chocolate pot from left to right with the cream pitcher and sugar bowl in front.) Teapots are easier – they are short and round-bellied to give tea the necessary room to brew and to keep water hot longer, because unlike their counterparts, tea was prepared in the teapot, not simply served in it. Coffeepots are more slender and taller with elongated, often arching, spouts. Chocolate pots are also taller than teapots, but their spout is typically shorter with the opening often just below the rim. Another difference between chocolate pots and coffeepots can be observed inside the pot: filters. A coffeepot has a screen-like filter over the base of the spout to catch grounds while a chocolate pot does not. Chocolate pots are also often distinguished by their odd handles. Unlike the loop handle on a coffeepot, chocolate pots frequently have turned handles sticking straight out of the side of the pots. Less commonly observed, early chocolate pots often had a hinged or removable finial, sometimes attached by chain, to allow for the insertion of a stirrer.

While eating chocolate has only grown in popularity, drinking chocolate never achieved the staying power of drinking coffee, due in large part to how much more complicated the production of processing cocoa beans is versus that of processing coffee beans. Drinking chocolate dropped out of fashion by the mid-18th century, to be replaced nearly one hundred years later by the use of cocoa powder to make something closer to the hot cocoa we know today.

In terms of market value, chocolate pots can fetch anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, with the value resting heavily on their age and material (silver, of course, has a steadier price). The terminology is often muddled as well, with chocolate pots not necessarily being clearly identified as such or with coffeepots being called chocolate pots. Ultimately well-wrought ones in silver with marks for known silversmiths are the most desirable.

Gorham gem and micromosaic set gold-washed sterling silver morse, Providence, Rhode Island, 1899We live in a rather disposable era just now, with plastic buttons popping off in the laundry and pants with broken zippers being discarded, but in the past, the medieval past, luxury goods like fabric and closure accessories like buttons and clasps were difficult to come by. Their expensive nature meant they needed to be easily salvageable and clothing was designed with this in mind. Take for instance a cope, which is a long liturgical garment that is open in the front and originally had a cloth rectangular panel across the front that joined with hook and eye closures to keep the cope from slipping. These panels, known as morses, highly visible as they were on the breast of the wearer, came to be highly decorated, initially with elaborate embroidery and then later with gemstones sewn into the decorations. Naturally, as the wealth of the Church grew and as ceremonies and cathedrals became increasingly ornamented throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era, the morse became a metalwork piece, a wrought clasp.

They are quite rare, or perhaps it is simply rare to recognize them for what they are or for them to be identified as such at auction, as medieval examples are well documented, both in museums and in the documents of European churches. This example, which sold recently at Skinner, Inc., is identified by its inscription and was likely a gift in memory of a church member. The central portrait is a micromosaic, a image composed like a mosaic, but with near-microscopic pieces.

A Chinese Export porcelain blue and white monteith, circa 1690A monteith is a large center bowl (usually silver, occasionally porcelain, rarely glass) designed to be filled with ice and with a scalloped, shaped rim to allow a set of wine glasses to be suspended around the rim by the foot of the glass, so the bowl of the glass can be chilled. While extant silver monteiths can be dated to as early as 1666, the more “modern” version of the form, which is essentially a punch bowl with a removable rim, saw the height of its popularity from the 1680s to the 1720s. Obviously, the silver forms were often reworked as they lost popularity and the porcelain versions would of course have been quite vulnerable to damage, so as a result, the form is relatively rare.

Two American silver serving Spoons, Paul Revere, Jr. Boston, 1786.As the holidays approach this fall, chances are you may be hauling out some old silver for serving.  We see so much of this at appraisal events – family silver that has been carefully handled for generations, and people expect it to have value.  In reality, there are a number of classifications of silver, and while it certainly doesn’t change the sentimental value, it might have little enough monetary value to mean that you could be enjoying it every day rather than just a few days out of the year!

The earliest and generally most valuable types of silver are the three solid forms – Britannia (a temporary British silver standard from 1697 to 1720 which varied from the long-standing sterling standard and was 95.8% silver – in American silver, this would generally be silver made early enough to be based on the British standard and before it was determined to be much too soft for durable use), sterling (92.5% silver), and coin (can be as little as 75%, but can also contain more silver than sterling).  Then, around 1743, Sheffield plate was introduced.  Early Sheffield plate, while not solid silver, contains significant quantities of silver, as it was constructed by fusing a sheet of silver to a sheet of copper which was then used to make the object.  (This Sheffield-plate hot water urn, if you look closely, has wear spots where the underlying copper is visible.)  These are the pieces, especially ones made in America, that can command the strongest prices, like the two Paul Revere coin silver spoons (pictured above) that brought almost $105,000.

Over time, the thickness of the silver used became thinner, but the distinction is that early Sheffield is made from a silver plate, while later versions of plating involve making the object in another metal and then plating it.  What is often called later Sheffield is really from the early days of electroplating, after the first English patents were granted in 1840 (although it’s worth noting that plating techniques were successfully experimented with in ancient societies).  From there, it’s a relatively short slide to modern silver-plate.  Electroplating is a process of applying a layer of silver to an inexpensive base metal, usually nickel silver, which isn’t really silver, but a mixture of copper, nickel and zinc, or, more commonly today, stainless steel.  Silver-plate thickness, measured in microns, varies – from just 3 microns to 35 microns or more, and over a person’s lifetime, depending on thickness and usage, the plate layer will begin to wear away.  (A micron is equivalent to 0.001 millimeter, so we’re talking really thin layers!)  Because of the extremely low level of silver content, most silver-plate has little monetary value, even pieces that are “triple-plated,” unless it’s older or of a more elaborate or large-scale form.

Sound complicated?  It can be.  Decorative pieces are still occasionally made on the Britannia standard.  Silver prices fluctuate as the prices for silver bullion, which have historically been very volatile, rise and fall.  Early solid silver forms have often been repaired or adapted to suit the changing fashions (like this tankard, made in the mid-18th century, that had the repousse pattern added, quite likely as late as the 20th century), while early Sheffield and electroplated pieces have often been re-plated, but the good thing is that silver is almost always clearly marked, which can help sort things out.  Bottom line: if you’ve got some silver socked away, get a sense of what it is, because if it’s not got great monetary value, you can celebrate its sentimental value every day!

How to Date Antique Silver

While hallmarks and manufacturers’ backstamps are the most accurate means of determining the age of a piece of silver, these can be worn away or indistinct. In such cases, it’s possible to determine an age range by recognizing the style of decoration on the piece, and knowing when that style was popular. Here are some of the basic decorating techniques and when they were employed.

Silver Shapes and Forms

A basic knowledge of historical styles of architectural and decorative accessories is a helpful starting point, as shapes and forms evolved with the changing styles of decoration. For example, an Art Deco era teapot will be in an entirely different shape from its Federal style and Victorian counterparts.

Silver Decorating Techniques

A 17th century English silver beaker with embossed flowers and leaf decoration

A 17th century English silver beaker with embossed flowers and leaf decoration

Embossing – An embossed item features designs and patterns on the front of the piece of sheet silver that are created by hammering from the back side. Popular in the 17th century, embossing is also called Repousse, especially when the embossing is in high relief.

Engraving – An engraved piece has decorative patterns that are cut into the surface of the metal using a tool called a graver which produces fine, sharp lines. Engraving is often used to apply a coat of arms, a monogram, or an inscription to a piece, and the style of engraving is often a clue to the age of the piece itself., especially if it is bright cut engraving, in which the engraving was done at an angle to create facets that would reflect light. Bright-cut engraving techniques were used mainly in the late 18th century, although sometimes engravings of both types were added to existing pieces of earlier vintage.

A Hester Bateman, London, 1788 George III silver wine coaster with chased and pierced in Adam style gallery

A Hester Bateman, London, 1788 George III silver wine coaster with chased and pierced in Adam style gallery

Hand Piercing and Machine Piercing – This technique describes a design that is punched out of a sheet of silver using cutting tools. Pieces of silver were cut away in a pattern created by positive and negative spaces. This was a laborious and time consuming process used mainly for table ware such as baskets. By the late 18th century, hand piercing was replaced with machine piercing, in which the pierced effect was created by machine. Machine pierced items tend to be more elaborate and precise than those that are hand pierced.

Die Stamping – Although the finished product may resemble embossing, die stamping is a mechanical means of production, used for mass production of lower cost items. In this technique, the silver sheet is stretched, and holes may appear in the raised decoration. This method was used after the beginning of the 19th century.

Engine-turning – A series of parallel lines cut into the surface of the metal, engine-turning is done by machine and creates a textured effect. This style of decorating was popular after the 1790’s.

-by p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer.

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