Quality flatware is determined by raw materials and production methods
—including labor intensive finishing techniques;
These posts discuss timeless, unbiased standards of quality from designers and technical experts at international flatware factories renowned for excellence. It’s impossible to judge the quality of flatware without first understanding the metals and complex tools and dies necessary to create balanced shapes and articulate patterns.
Economies of scale make mass-produced flatware affordable relative to the metal used. In order of current popularity, they are: stainless steel, silver-plate and sterling silver. Production methods may differ for each metal but all are complex. If we understand these differences, we can choose good quality flatware at prices each of us can afford.
Fairly abundant in ores, silver is lustrous, malleable and ductile and has been used for ornaments and coins since about 4,000 B.C. Sterling silver is 925 parts pure silver mixed with 75 parts copper for hardness. Sterling silver flatware is marked sterling or.925. Sterling flatware lasts throughout many generations and retains its intrinsic value.
Vermeil is gold plated sterling. Vermeil became popular after Jacqueline Kennedy restored Monroe vermeil flatware found in the basement of the White House.
Silver-plate flatware is a layer of silver electroplated over a base metal of nickel silver or stainless steel. Less costly base metals are copper or brass alloys. In time—depending upon it’s thickness, silver plating wears off. The word silver-plate and the manufacturer’s name should be on each piece.
Some manufacturers silver-plate their stainless steel production flatware. I visited one factory who, for the sake of durability—electroplate stainless steel first in copper— then silver. Markings of EPNS silver-plate means the flatware base metal is nickel-silver, a superior base metal.
If you choose silver-plated flatware, question the purity and thickness of the silver plating and be sure to ask for possible warranties.
Good quality stainless steel flatware is an alloy of iron, 18% chrome, 8 % nickel and a minimum of other metals. Chromium adds rust and corrosion resistance, nickel adds shine. 18/10 stainless flatware is better quality than 18/8 because it contains more nickel. 18/0 stainless steel has no nickel. Alloy designations must be marked on every piece. Both 18/8 and 18/10 alloys are low maintenance and durable.
Stainless steel flatware, stain less—not stain proof, was first made in the 1930’s. The first patterns were severely plain because tools and dies used to strike ornate patterns on silver didn’t work because steel is so hard. Tools and dies capable of mass-producing articulate, elaborate patterns on stainless steel were finally perfected in the 1960’s.
Today, because of durability, affordability, low maintenance and a broad range of patterns from traditional to contemporary, stainless steel flatware has won universal acceptance.
Currently, stainless steel dominates U.S. flatware sales. Brands available in U.S. retail stores are made in England, Germany, Italy, Japan and China.
Pewter is 92% tin alloyed with antimony and copper. Today’s silvery gray pewter contains no lead and is not toxic. Pewter doesn’t tarnish but it’s soft and can easily dent and scratch. Many current advertisements for pewter flatware describe cast pewter handles—with knife blades, spoon bowls and fork tines of stainless steel .
Sterling silver, silver plate, stainless steel and pewter flatware generally refers to spoons, forks, serving pieces and handles of knives: knife blades are usually stainless steel.
Consumers are cautioned to wash all flatware having handles of wood, mother-of-pearl, enamel, porcelain or colored stone (petra dura) by hand. Dishwashers proved unkind to the finish of the much-loved and colorful Bakelite handles of the 1920’s. However, some man-made composite materials have recently been developed to withstand the heat and pressure of a dishwasher.
Blades for sterling, silver plate, stainless steel and pewter place-setting knives are acceptable because most of them are a good quality stainless steel alloy—but one that might not hold a sharp cutting edge. Therefore, many manufacturers use serrated stainless steel blades to compensate for the lack of sharpness.
Since 1990, the drop in global demand for sterling and silver-plate flatware has brought about mergers, buy-outs, factory closings and bankruptcies of many international flatware businesses.
Some manufacturers have diversified product lines by buying or merging with glassware and dinnerware companies and some have shown growth through the successful marketing of STAINLESS STEEL FLATWARE.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF FLATWARE IS GOOD?
BY JUDGING FOR YOURSELF!
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
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