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    The History of Silver Cutlery

    The History of Silver Cutlery


    Silver is an inherently beautiful metal for fashioning into tableware and cutlery and people with taste have always wished to possess it. However, its main use over three millennia has been as money, providing the basis for much of society’s economic activity. History points to the discovery of a vast deposit near Athens in 500BC, this was the foundation of the wealth and power of ancient Greece and similarly for the Romans who got most of their silver from Spain which was Europe’s main source until the 8th century Moorish invasions.

    The next major find was in the 16th century in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. Japan found silver in the 17th century and this, with Central and South American mines, provided the main sources of raw material for the English 18th century silversmiths who brought the art and craft of silversmithing to its pinnacle – Queen Anne and Georgian silver is still the most revered. The USA became a major world producer from the mid-19th century and Australia from the 1880’s.

    From ancient times until World War II coinage and silverware continued to be the main uses of silver. Since then the industrial user has dwarfed these, notably the photographic, electronics and computer industries, and silver oxide is used in batteries in military and space programmes.

    Silver used to be found near the earth’s surface but this has now mostly been exhausted. It occurs more abundantly in deeper mines in the sulphide ores of copper, zinc and lead. The quantity of silver extracted therefore depends on the quantities of these base metals mined and this in turn is governed by their commodity prices rather than by that of silver itself.


    Hallmarks were introduced in England in 1327 when the medieval guilds began testing silver to ensure that it was of the required sterling standard. This is regarded as the world’s first official quality testing and consumer protection system. Sterling was used as an international medium of exchange and was authenticated as genuine by an image of the monarch’s head on coinage and by the hallmarks impressed on silverware. Every piece of precious metal still has to be submitted to an Assay Office for independent testing and hallmarking. ‘Hall’ refers to the craft guild headquarters, for example the Goldsmith’s Hall in London, which is chartered to regulate the trade. It is illegal to describe and sell silver as sterling silver in Britain unless it has been hallmarked.

    The concept of sterling originated when silversmiths found fine – i.e 100% pure – silver too soft to fashion alone, and so had to alloy it with base metal in order to harden it. The most compatible base metal is copper. The ideal amount of copper was found to be 75 parts copper to 1000 parts of total weight, and thus the sterling quality contains 925 parts of pure silver. The resulting sterling – or 925 – silver alloy produces the following ideal qualities:

    – strength
    – malleability in working
    – it can be polished to give a characteristic high standard of finish with a blue/black depth of colour – compared with the harder white surface of silver plated wares.
    – it yields a level of scratching that gives a patina – a softness of colour reflecting from the myriad tiny abrasions that come from frequent use.

    This sterling alloy is variously known as sterling, sterling silver, solid silver, hallmarked silver or just silver, and the fact that it has been independently tested and accredited to conform to the 925 sterling quality has made British silverware trusted and accepted throughout the world. Its intrinsic value is protected from fraud or error as every piece has to be submitted to the Assay Offices whose laboratories examine physical scrapings from each piece. These are chemically analysed and only when the piece of silver has been passed is the hallmark applied. Assay failure results in the object being destroyed. No other country has had this consumer protection for so long – nearly 700 years.

    In 1999 a European Convention imposed an additional fineness mark. This is the figure ‘925’ in an oval surround, indicating the standard i.e. 925 parts of fine – pure – silver per 1000 parts. This duplicates the Lion Passant mark, which has been the symbol of sterling quality since 1540. Although not generally welcomed and seen by some as an intrusion in our historic hallmarking system, anything made of the cheaper ‘800’ quality is clearly marked with that figure so the level of consumer protection has not been damaged but – in our view – made clearer.


    Cutlery in its most basic form has been with us since Stone Age man ceased to tear his food with tooth and nail. The earliest cutting tools discovered by archaeologists date back to 500,000 BC when flint, slate and bone were all in use. A closer relative of today’s cutlery is a metal knife which is known to have been in use in 2000 BC. Every modern knife is a direct descendant of these early tools.

    Spoons have a more recent history – little use was found for them in prehistoric times, but the discovery of fire meant that early man had to find some way to get hot food and liquids into his mouth. The forerunner of the spoon was probably the sea shell. The earliest example of a spoon as we know it is a clay piece dated at 5000 BC.

    The fork came later. Anglo-Saxon forks have been found – dating back to the 9th century – but these tended to be little more than a skewer, sometimes with two prongs. There is no reference to forks – as we know them – being used at the English table until the 17th century.

    In medieval England eating was mostly with fingers, cutting meat with a communal knife and at times using a spoon. A complementary place setting of matching knife, fork and spoon for each diner originated in renaissance Italy and developed in mid-17th century France at a time when art, craft and domestic sophistication signified political power. The Huguenot craftsmen of Louis XIV were the core of European silversmithing, but most of them fled France when their religious freedom was forfeited by the passing of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and many settled in London, recognised as the most important silver city outside France.

    In Britain – at the time – silverware was in short supply, since most had been melted down to pay for the Civil War of the 1640’s. Exploration, foreign trade and the development of the Empire were the preoccupations that followed, creating great wealth for the privileged, who built fine houses and furnished them with the best that could be made. Domestic arts lean on architecture; the buildings of this period were designed primarily to please the eye and their shapes, curves and integral decorations were ideal for the medium of silver. The shell, scroll and all manner of decorations and designs incorporated in silver cutlery stem directly from architectural inspiration, much of it with roots in the Queen Anne and Georgian era. The blending of flamboyant continental Huguenot design with the plainer Puritan styles of the English craftsmen produced a variety of exquisite silverware that has never since been surpassed and many of their designs live on and are the bedrock of the silverware and cutlery patterns in our range today.

    The craft workshops were small, everything was fashioned by hand under the close supervision of the proprietor with whom the ultimate customer personally consulted. Much of our cutlery and better quality silverware is still largely produced by hand in small craft workshops. Some cutlery is still entirely hand forged, other equally impressive cutlery is produced and stamped in dies, and is then hand-set (shaped) and hand polished individually to very high standards.

    At Lincoln House we retain the tradition of dealing personally with each individual client. We do everything we can to make sure the style of cutlery and make-up of each set exactly suit the aspirations and tastes of our clients – who come from all over the world in search of the finest English cutlery and silverware. Uniquely, we can supply every good make and every single pattern of cutlery made in Britain today, and because we supply our clients direct, our prices are always extremely competitive. No other company in the world offers such a comprehensive and specialised service in English silverware and cutlery.


    Cutlery consists primarily of knives, but as a generic term it includes knife handled pieces such as carving forks and carving steels. Flatware – as a term – means spoons and forks, pieces that are made flat and are then beaten or pressed into shape. The history of cutlery and flatware is one of change and development – constant evolution continues to the present day as changing eating habits and tastes are being interpreted serviced by cutlers and silversmiths.

    Since the early 18th century food has always been eaten in the best circles with silver implements. Silver is, after gold, one of the most chemically inert of metals in that it does not react with acids that are present in fruit, fish, and sauces etc. The enjoyment of food is much enhanced by the feel of good cutlery and flatware.

    The spoon, as we reported earlier, dates back to the time when man first needed to raise hot foods and liquids to his mouth but it was not until Charles II returned in 1660 from exile in France and Holland that his court popularised two pronged fork for eating. Previously in England, a very large-bladed knife had been used to carve meat with the aid of a single prong fork merely to hold the piece steady, the carved pieces were then eaten from the fingers. The refined use of the fork spoon, a combined spoon and fork utensil, became popular by 1700 and the custom was later fully established with forks gaining a useful third prong and sets of matching table knives were made – reduced from the former carving knives for individual use. From this a matched set of knives, forks and spoons in both table and dessert sizes developed for each individual place setting. Towards the middle of the 18th century the transition of forks was complete when a fourth prong was added. Knives have continued to become progressively smaller so that now they are of a compatible size to the forks used with them. This continuing trend can be appreciated when you compare the larger sized knives in our Georgian and earlier patterns to the very latest designs in our range, which hail from two decades, where the table knife and fork are almost the same size. Blade shapes have also varied with fashion and whilst the fingerpoint – or taper – blade is the one most in demand today, we offer a choice of shapes and styles to suit individual tastes.

    As diet widened and became more sophisticated, specialised pieces for particular foods have been developed. An early example is the fish knife, made with a silver blade tapered to part the flesh from the bones. Soup is now more commonly eaten with a round-bowl soup spoon instead of with huge table spoons, there are egg spoons and grapefruit spoons and many different knife shapes for cheese, butter, cake, bread and so on. These innovations are mostly early 20th century but are now firmly established.

    A complete set of cutlery can be achieved with just seven place set pieces, some would claim five, plus serving spoons and perhaps fish knives and forks. Place sets and pieces can be bought individually. The usual seven principal pieces are the table knife, table fork, dessert/ side knife, dessert/side fork and dessert spoon, soup spoon and teaspoon. All our sets can be made up to suit your precise requirements and all our cutlery is sold individually, so that it can be collected over time, or lost pieces relaced.


    The Knife. A blade length piece of special cutlery steel is cut and shaped by a series of heating and stamping operations, and the tang – the piece that fits into the handle – is stamped with a criss-cross pattern. When the correct shape has been achieved, and this includes the bolster, the blade is reheated and tempered to the required hardness.

    After each blade has been individually inspected, the back of the bolster is ground flat to ensure a perfect fit with the handle. Further grinding of the blade surface removes heat scale, and a long series of glazing and polishing operations removes the grinding marks, leaving a beautiful mirror finish.

    The handle is filled with urethane cement, and the tang pushed in to make a snug fit. After the cement has set to make a watertight, hygienic seal, handle and blade are carefully polished. Our name is then etched onto the blade, which is then whetted to a very fine edge. The special grade cutlery steel which is used ensures the cutting edge retains its sharpness for a lifetime of use. We also offer a personalised etching service and will be pleased to etch your family name, crest or house name onto the blade instead of ours. Blades can also be left unetched if you are buying our cutlery to match a set of another make.
    Monobloc knives, pressed out from a single ingot of metal, usually stainless steel, are used in less expensive ranges of stainless steel cutlery, but are not generally used with silver and silver plated cutlery, when the better balanced hollow handled knife – as desicribed above – is the norm.

    The Spoon and Fork. The basic shape is cut out from a sheet of sterling silver, nickel silver alloy or stainless steel. At this stage spoons and forks are a similar shape, with a handle shape leading to a wider area of metal which will become the spoon bowl or the fork prongs.

    In the case of a spoon, cross rolling of ‘this wider area of metal’ between two pressurised heavy rollers produces a large flat end on the handle, which is then trimmed to a round or oval shape. Precision dies are then applied to form the pattern on the handle. After ‘handling’, a further pair of dies are applied to produce the bowl shape.

    Forks begin in much the same way, and the eventual tapering of the prongs – to make them a little thinner than the handles – is achieved by light cross rolling what is – at this stage – a wider area of metal at the end of the handle. The tines are then pressed out to form the prongs.

    Both pieces are then ready for filing and polishing, a series of many highly skilled operations carried out individually and almost entirely by hand, to give you the beautiful finish you will find on every piece of our cutlery. Nickel silver cutlery is then plated with a deposit of 20 microns of pure silver. The final process for both sterling silver and silver plated cutlery is called silver finishing. This is carried out on all pieces with very soft polishing wheels, and again, each piece is worked individually until it has the lustrous blue-black finish one sees on the finest silverware.