Generations gather ’round the table with family silver collections spanning centuries.
By Gwyn Herbein
Storybook treasures often bring to mind thoughts of rare gems and precious metals stored in chests protected by any number of daunting safeguards. In the South, these fairy tales manifest themselves in reality. Locked chests take the form of curio cabinets and felt-lined boxes, and the guards’ watchful eyes are actually generations of families who pass down the task of preserving stashes of one of the most storied metals of all: silver.
In the South, a gathering around the table with friends and family is often incomplete without the presence of past generations, symbolized in the shining silver pieces that have become an integral part of tradition. From the utensils carefully placed at each setting to the coffee pot that appears at the end of the meal, silver service has survived in the modern dining experience, and across the country, tables shimmer with the family hollowware (receptacles such as teapots, goblets and bowls) and flatware.
A History of Elegance
Silver has been a valuable commodity in America since the early colonial days. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, silver was an essential part of your home and your holdings,” explains Nicholas Dawes, vice president of Special Collections for Heritage Auctions and an appraiser for the television program “Antiques Roadshow.” “It was what was called ‘plate,’ which meant your silver and your gold. How much you had was a mark of your status.” And because silver requires regular maintenance, keeping a large set signified that a family had the resources and staff to keep its collection shining.
Aside from denoting wealth, silver was also a medium of security for women before they could legally own land in America. Often, affluent families would amass collections of silver and linens for their daughters, and the goods, all monogrammed with their initials, were stored in hope chests until they were married and could use them in their own home.
Because silver was purchased for women, styles are traditionally feminine with swirling flourishes and floral motifs along the handles. As more patterns were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, families and individuals were able to build—and pass down—collections more varied than ever before. New utensils also were created for serving and consuming everything from bacon to bonbons. “They brought afternoon tea to a new level,” says Stuart Slavid, senior vice president and director of Fine Ceramics, Fine Silver and European Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner auction house. New variations of silver utensils set the stage for contemporary collectors to find one-of-a-kind pieces for heirloom collections of a different kind.
Silver in the Modern Age
While the same value isn’t placed on modern dining sets, which are frequently made from stainless steel, many silver collectors now focus on hunting for antiques to pass on rather than purchasing new pieces. “A lot of younger families will tend to not necessarily continue the tradition of acquiring [new] things, but will inherit,” Dawes says. Rather than signaling a woman is from a wealthy family as it has in days past, silver has become a tangible connection to past generations.
For those who may not have inherited a collection, or for those looking to add to an existing one, buying the newest models may not be the best idea. “Buy secondhand,” Dawes advises. “It is much more favorable to buy silver at auction rather than retail.”
Slavid adds that auction previews are a great way to get a feel for items, and that the experience can trigger an intuition that a certain piece is just right. “It’s easiest to start by buying what you like,” he says. “Whether you have fallen in love with a particular pattern, a style, a period or forms, focus [your efforts]. There is just too much silver out there to start collecting with reckless abandon.”
Silver enthusiasts below the Mason-Dixon Line may not realize the significance of silver in the region. Prevailing stories about Southerners and their beloved silver sets recount the care they took to hide it during the Civil War from the Union army. Many Southerners and silver historians are quick to note that their collections literally turned into buried treasure when families concealed valuables by digging holes in the grounds of thickly wooded forests for goods to be resurfaced at safer times.
The contemporary Southern market is also special because of the presence of pieces made by local artisans—making great finds easier to come by. “You have the benefit of buying things that were made in the South,” Dawes explains. “Become familiar with Southern silver marks and forms. There are lots of books that can help. If you have a connection to a particular part of the South, you can find things that were made in specific places.” From well-known manufacturers in Charleston to smaller operations in rural Kentucky, the South continues to be a haven for silver collectors.
While many have kept the tradition of silver collecting alive in the Southern states, the country as a whole has seen a fluctuation in the market for silver.
Through the end of the 19th century, the U.S. led the world’s silver market, but the following century was marked by a decline in silver consumption. Coming off of the extravagance of the Victorian era and the more streamlined styles of the Art Deco period, the austerity of wartime diminished the presence of silver on dinner tables. Since World War II, many families and public institutions have helped preserve the precious metal’s significance with impressive heritage collections.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, Fowler Museum keeps the Francis E. Fowler, Jr. Collection of Silver on permanent display. This 251-piece exhibit is made up of items created between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe and the U.S., aiming to give a glimpse into the social context that surrounded silver. Pieces from renowned workshops, like that of Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé and American patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, make the exhibit a must-see.
Another notable assemblage has become a national treasure and even inspired the decoration of a room in the White House. The White House’s Vermeil Room, noted for its portraits of the first ladies, is named for a 1956 bequest of fine silver-gilt or vermeil tableware that was given to the White House Collection by Margaret Thompson Biddle. Biddle was a close friend of first lady Mamie Eisenhower. The room was refurbished in 1958 to include special display cabinets for the collection, which included more than 1,500 pieces crafted by European masters and American companies such as Tiffany & Co. and Gorham. Pieces from the Biddle bequest can still be viewed in the Vermeil Room today.
Curating a Collection
While Biddle built her collection around vermeil, other enthusiasts have curated their own troves of silver based on different classifications. Former All-American football player John LeHeup has a private collection of rare, 19th-century silver with ties to South Carolina. Other collectors search for unusual pieces such as grape scissors, asparagus servers or even ice cream slicers. The most common method of collecting is according to pattern, allowing people to create matching sets.
Focus on pattern has become so prevalent in the silver market that some lines have become household names, especially among brides who carefully consider their chosen pattern. Beyond the added perk of having a table of matching pieces, collecting by pattern often reflects the character of the owner.
Reed & Barton, one of America’s oldest privately held silversmiths, makes Francis I, the ubiquitous line for heavy flourishes with fruit and flowers. Another embellished style, Grand Baroque by Wallace Silversmiths, features different types of flowers on each utensil—roses on knives, narcissus on forks and five-petal flowers on spoons. The line was part of a run that featured six patterns, all of which could be distinguished from the front, back or profile. The heavy details come with a price, though: Polishing takes extra time and effort.
In contrast, Buttercup, made by the American Gorham Manufacturing Co., was first offered in 1899 and is distinctively low-maintenance. The flower motif on the handle becomes more defined by the patina that comes with oxidation. Another pattern, Old Master by Towle, signifies Southern traditionalism with its violin-shaped handle adorned with scrolls and a rosette.
No matter the pattern, silver still plays a role in the modern world where family dinner doesn’t call for the wedding china. The breakfast table can be dressed up with a silver sugar bowl; a serving fork or ladle lends elegance to a weekday meal. Despite its beauty, silver remains practical, even after centuries and generations of use. “I think people overlook the fact that you do use a lot of it—[in] coffee sets, wine cups,” Dawes says, urging people to pull silver from the hutch and put it to use. Otherwise, it’s all just buried treasure.
The House Collection
At Sea Island, silver carries serious value. Jason Russell, the resort’s executive chef of events, explains that much of Sea Island’s expansive collection—some of which can be seen in the Trophy Room at The Lodge—dates back to
Sea Island’s beginnings. “Some of [the pieces] are replicas, and some are the real trophies,” he says. There are also items acquired from local families and treasures found in unexpected places. The silver that sees regular use is kept in a separate location known as the silver room. This stock of working silver includes platters, spoons, shakers and other tableware.
One of Russell’s favorite pieces is a classic French cuisine-style duck press (an apparatus used to make sauce from whole ducks) made of pure silver—a rare find because the culinary instruments were typically made from cast iron. The staff stumbled upon the piece in a warehouse. It was subsequently polished and is now proudly displayed as a centerpiece of the Sea Island collection.
To maintain the collection, Sea Island employs a team of staff members including a silver room attendant, who finds and prepares silver for all occasions. And because preservation is a full-time job, the staff is on call around the clock.
One of the team’s responsibilities is to manage the silver used daily in the Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room. “The Georgian Room is about being the best,” Russell explains. “It’s always the best silver, the best china. That is our standard, year-round.” He adds that the Georgian Room has its own signature set of flatware, called Puiforcat. “We use this pattern, this brand, for the Georgian Room only. It is one of the more decorated brands. We’ve had that silver for more than 20 years.” And that isn’t the only pattern that Sea Island possesses. For the resort’s dinners in its wine cellars, white-glove service calls for the Contour line of Sambonet silver.