Sheffield silver – exquisite beauty accessible to ordinary people
Sheffield silver is antique household items made of copper with a silver coating on one or both sides. The name comes from the English city of Sheffield, where the production technology was developed. A layered combination of two metals was used to create serving utensils, coffee and tea sets, jugs, vases, candlesticks, inkwells, buttons and other items. Sheffield silver has a soft, luminous gray luster, elegant design and high quality. The copper core significantly reduced the cost of production, so that excellent products were available to the general population. Now they are of great value to collectors.
Sheffield silver came about in 1743 by a stroke of luck. Craftsman Thomas Bulsover was trying to mend a copper and silver knife handle for his client and heated it too much. As a result, the two metals fused and began to behave as one, although the difference between the layers was noticeable. After some time, Bulsover opened his own production and thus began the history of Sheffield silver. He took a sheet of copper, covered it with a thinner layer of silver on one or both sides, and then heated and rolled it to reduce the thickness. Initially, only buttons were made from such a “sandwich”. They looked like silver, but cost several times cheaper, so they were in great demand.
Sheffield silver became more widely known after 1758, thanks to Bullsover’s student, Joseph Hancock. He began to create more complex and larger objects: candlesticks, coffee pots, dishes, trays. Products were continuously improved and gradually began to compete in quality and beauty with luxurious sterling silver. The technology spread beyond Sheffield, with new factories opening in Birmingham, London, Dublin, then France, North America and even Russia. But the highest quality of products was preserved at home.
Since the mid-1830s, in simple-shaped products, copper was replaced by a harder nickel silver alloy with nickel and zinc in the composition. Another ten years later, electroplating was invented, and this was the decline of Sheffield silver. By 1870, its production had practically ceased. Longer than others produced things subject to heavy wear and tear, especially buttons and mugs.
Sheffield silver hallmarks
Recognizing the authenticity of objects from the Sheffield plate can be difficult. In the era of electroplated products – cheap, but of lower quality – many fakes and imitations appeared. For copper-silver products, a unified hallmark system was not developed, as, for example, for pure silver from Sheffield. In the early stages, it was not marked, and later different factories or craftsmen affixed their marks.
You can determine the value, authenticity and approximate age of Sheffield silver by the marks of the manufacturer and other clues:
- In the 19th century, there were many manufacturers in Great Britain, little known today. You can find the hallmarks of many of them in reference books and manuals in English. For the same factory, the brand could change over time, which makes it possible to approximately date the product. Sometimes the year of issue was immediately affixed.
- The Sheffield plate has characteristic features: seams and thread-like protrusions on the lower edges, including those with translucent copper. The craftsmen tried to hide the traces of soldering, but you can often see them.
- On expensive items, the initials or coat of arms of the owner were sometimes affixed to the front side. If the engraving is framed by a thin circle, then this is sterling silver inlaid in a Sheffield plate. Without such an insert, it is difficult to apply an image without affecting the copper layer.
- Manufacturers of Sheffield silver did not strive for originality. Preference was given to the design that was popular at one time or another. The general style and features of the decor make it possible to judge the approximate date of manufacture.
- If an item has an EP or EPNS marking, it is definitely not Sheffield silver. So labeled products with galvanized coating.
Since 1911, by decision of a British court, the term “Sheffield silver” can only be applied to products made in the smelting process. Now it is an international practice. Antiques that have been used and polished for a long time usually wear down to a copper layer. Often they were plated with silver for restoration – this is not considered a fake. Some items, such as goblets or egg tins, are found in excellent condition and may be similar to products from a later period.
Famous craftsmen such as Matthew Boulton worked on many of the items. In its heyday, this technology was used to create such beautiful pieces that today they can cost more than their sterling silver counterparts. Now such masterpieces are kept in museum collections and private collections.